CHILD OF THE WATERGATE SCANDAL
There was a time when American businesses didn't fret much about foreign bribery, much less what federal prosecutors might do about it. Rather, it was considered an ugly but necessary aspect of doing business in the graft-plagued developing world. That changed in the wake of Watergate.
The path from Nixon's dirty tricks to the problem of foreign corruption was a bit roundabout, to say the least. At the tail end of the Watergate congressional hearings, a group of business executives testified to making illicit payments to the president's re-election campaign. Their admission perked the interest of Stanley Sporkin, the head of the Securities and Exchange Commission's enforcement division, who wondered how those contributions would have been accounted for on the companies' books. He began an investigation, which eventually revealed that the same slush funds used to funnel money to political campaigns at home were also used to pay bribes abroad. The federal inquiry expanded, and more than 400 corporations eventually confessed to collectively making more than $300 million worth of corrupt payments overseas.
This wasn't the first time U.S. companies had been caught doling out cash to foreign governments. After giving the Lockheed Corporation a $250 million federal loan guarantee to avoid bankruptcy in 1971, federal regulators discovered that the airplane maker had bribed public officials in Japan, Italy and the Netherlands to win government contracts. The revelations became national embarrassments in the countries where the deals had occurred.
The Lockheed affair and the shocking outcome of Sporkin's detective work both contributed to a sense that reform was necessary. As Andrew Spalding, a professor at the Illinois Institute of Technology's Chicago-Kent College of Law, has written, U.S. policy makers worried that such rank corruption would become a Cold War liability both by harming our relationship with allies and by discrediting capitalism. It was a sentiment summed up perhaps most eloquently by George Ball, a former undersecretary of state under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, in Senate testimony from 1976:
The vast volume of speeches, pamphlets, and advertising copy and propaganda leaflets extolling the virtues of free enterprise are cancelled every night when managements demonstrate by their conduct that a sector of multinational business activity is not free; it is bought and paid for. This is a problem that, like so many others, has relevance in the struggle of antagonistic ideologies; for, when our enterprises stoop to bribery and kickbacks, they give substance to the communist myth already widely believed in Third World countries that capitalism is fundamentally corrupt.
BORN, FORGOTTEN, AND REBORN
The FCPA eventually passed under the Carter administration, making the United States the first country to officially outlaw foreign bribery. The law then promptly faded from memory. Cases were rare and little talked about. However, by the 1990s, old concerns about the law began to re-emerge.