- FCPA Professor - http://fcpaprofessor.com -

The U.S. Government Bears Some Responsibility

The U.S. government bears some responsibility when it comes to certain circumstances that result in FCPA scrutiny.  While some are likely to view this as a controversial statement or being a corporate apologist, this basic fact has always been relevant to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

As highlighted in this [1] prior post, one of the more insightful things found in the FCPA’s extensive legislative history is an October 1975 article by Milton Gwirtzman published by the New York Times Magazine.  At this point in time, Congress was in the midst of its investigations into the so-called foreign corporate payments problem and Gwirtzman noted:

“If corporate bribery abroad has offended the post-Watergate morality, the companies implicated have nevertheless taken a greater share of the blame than they deserve.  […]  The responsibility for present practices must also be shared by our Government,  which not only encouraged investment in countries whose ethical standards differ  from ours, but also in many respects set the pattern for the graft under censure today.  […]  The rapid acceleration of American private investment in foreign lands, which began in the mid-nineteen-sixties, was seen by our foreign policy makers as a welcome opportunity.  If U.S. firms could build a nation’s infrastructure, supply its consumer goods and hire a portion of its workers, the greater the likelihood the nation would be bound to ours by the safest and strongest of ties, economic self-interest.  As a result, our Government wrote the foreign investment laws of several developing countries and urged our multinationals to make use of them.  New programs were established to insure foreign investment against the risks of war and expropriation.  Embassy personnel were ordered to scout out export possibilities for American firms, which were published in Commerce Business Daily, the Government’s daily list of business opportunities.”

Gwirtzman then stated as follows.  “For all these reasons, it would be unwise, as well as unfair, simply to write off bribery abroad to corporate lust.  It is a symbol of far deeper issues that really involve America’s role in the world.”

In 2004, the U.S. government lifted various sanctions against Libya after Moammar Kadafi agreed to abandon a nuclear weapons program.  The White House encouraged “Libya’s reintegration with the global market” and a White House statement read:  “U.S. companies will be able to buy or invest in Libyan oil and products. U.S. commercial banks and other financial service providers will be able to participate in and support these transactions.”

The front-page article [2] earlier this week in the Wall Street Journal read “Probe Widens Into Dealings Between Finance Firms, Libya.”  The article states, in pertinent part:

“The Justice Department has joined a widening investigation of banks, private-equity firms and hedge funds that may have violated antibribery laws in their dealings with Libya’s government-run investment fund, people familiar with the matter said. The criminal investigation, which has intensified in recent months, is proceeding alongside a civil probe by the Securities and Exchange Commission that began in 2011 and initially honed in on Goldman Sachs Group Inc. The Justice Department’s involvement hasn’t been reported previously. In addition to Goldman Sachs, federal investigators are examining Credit Suisse Group AG , J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Société Générale SA, private-equity firm Blackstone Group LP and hedge-fund operator Och-Ziff Capital Management Group LLC, these people said. Spokesmen for the Justice Department and the SEC declined to comment.  Authorities are examining investment deals made around the time of the financial crisis and afterward, these people said. In the years leading up to Libya’s 2011 revolution, Western firms—encouraged by the U.S. government—raced to attract investment money from the North African nation, which was benefiting from oil sales and recently had opened to foreign investment. Investigators are trying to determine whether the firms violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the people said.

[…]

The U.S. lifted sanctions against Libya in 2004 in return for the country’s dismantling of its nuclear-weapons program. By 2008, as the financial crisis set in, Western firms were jockeying for business there. That year, then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice visited Libya and met with Col. Gadhafi in part to improve the investment climate there for U.S. companies, she said at the time. The government advised companies on investing in Libya, and U.S. executives went there on a government-sponsored trade mission in 2010.”

Whether its leading trade missions, providing export financing or provide support through diplomatic channels, in certain instances the U.S. government encourages companies (for foreign policy and other strategic interests) to go to the edge of the cliff.  As the passage of time occasionally shows, when the footing on the cliff becomes a bit loose, and the market participants fall over the edge, other segments of the U.S. government then launch a criminal inquiry seeking to discover why.

As I told a Foreign Policy reporter earlier this week in connection with the recent news:

“There is an irony of course in the U.S. government encouraging companies to do business in certain countries because it serves U.S. interests.  Then when the company does business in that country and encounters business conditions that the U.S. government no doubt knew it was going to encounter, the company then becomes the subject of a U.S. law enforcement inquiry.”

As so it goes.

If not before, I predict I will write about this issue again in the next few years when the DOJ and SEC launch an FCPA inquiry of various companies doing business in Myanmar.  In case you haven’t heard, the U.S. government recently eased various restrictions relevant to doing business in that country and is actively encouraging companies to toe the cliff.