Wednesday, November 3, 2010

In the Words of Theodore Sorensen

Theodore Sorensen recently passed away (see here).

Sorensen's career included several notable accomplishments and, as President Kennedy's speechwriter, he had a way with words.

Buried deep in the thousands of pages of FCPA legislative history, one will find a July 1976 article Sorensen, a lawyer who spent a substantial portion of his career with Paul Weiss, authored for Foreign Affairs titled "Improper Payments Abroad: Perspective and Proposals" (abstract available here).

July 1976 was a mid-point of sorts in the nearly three year journey of Congress in investigating and addressing the foreign payments problem. President Ford, whose administration favored a disclosure regime, would soon lose the November 1976 election to Jimmy Carter and Carter's administration favored a prohibition regime, which came to be embodied in the FCPA signed by President Carter in December 1977.

Sorensen's article begans as follows:

"Like motherhood and apple pie (zero population growth? food additives?), corporate bribery abroad is not the simple, safe issue it seems at first blush. Sharp division and delay have characterized its consideration by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, Department of Justice and Internal Revenue Service, and by several Committees of the U.S. Congress, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the International Chamber of Commerce. In the United States, a Presidential Cabinet-level Task Force-and in the United Nations, the Committee on Transnational Corporations-have been asked to untangle the problem; but no solution is yet agreed upon.

The practice of exporters and investors offering special inducements to host country officials is at least as old as Marco Polo. But in the United States a post-Watergate climate of pitiless exposure for all suspect practices connected with government has intensified both the investigations of these payments and the oversimplified publicity given to them. Indeed the seeds of the present furor were sown in Watergate. When the Special Prosecutor traced some of the "cover-up" financing to unreported corporate campaign contributions, often transmitted through foreign "slush funds," the SEC initiated a major check on all undisclosed payments to governments and politicians, both domestic and foreign, by the publicly owned companies subject to its jurisdiction.

As a result, U.S. corporate officials have engaged in the most painful rush to public "voluntary" confession since China's Cultural Revolution. Scores of U.S.-based companies have been investigated by one or more arms of the U.S. executive branch, legislative branch, and news media-or by their own directors. Many foreign officials of varying prominence have been forced to resign, deny, or both. The going rate for bribery has reportedly fallen in some countries as fear of disclosure increases, and risen in others as officials discover the full potential of their position. Debates between businessmen asserting that only they live in the "real world" ("Of course, I'm against bribery, but . . . .") and bureaucrats asserting that only they are without sin ("No payment of any kind or size for any reason should escape . . . .") have thus far produced more heat than light. It is hoped that a calmer, more long-range perspective can soon prevail. Otherwise, genuinely legitimate business practices will be inhibited by an atmosphere of fear and suspicion, generated by sweeping and hasty reactions, while those truly intent on corruption will merely wait for the emotional storm to pass."

In the article, Sorensen makes several insightful and valid points. Among those are the following.

"The [issue of how to remedy foreign payments] has been further distorted by an outpouring of self-serving, self-righteous hypocrisy on both sides. Among the biggest hypocrites have been the following: (i) those foreign governments which since time immemorial have closed their eyes and held out their hands, but which now denounce the United States for introducing corruption to their shores; (ii) those U.S. politicians who professed ignorance of the illegality of corporate campaign contributions they received (or knew others received) in cash in sealed envelopes behind a barn or men's room door, but who now insist that various company executives be prosecuted because they should have known of their subordinates' improper activities abroad; (iii) those agencies of the U.S. government which long knew of and even approved of barely concealed payoffs by companies engaged in favored overseas sales and investments, but which now wring their hands at the unbelievable shame of it all; and (iv) those U.S. and foreign newspaper commentators who long winked at free junkets and passes for newsmen, even a little extra income doing public relations for the organizations they were covering, but who now condemn the ethical standards of the business community."

Sorensen noted that "there will be countless situations in which a fair-minded investigator or judge will be hard-put to determine whether a particular payment or practice is a legitimate and permissible business activity or a means of improper influence."

He offered the following examples.

"Example 1. The best lawyer in a foreign town is the London-educated son of the Minister of Commerce. Should he be prevented from accepting clients who need permits from the Ministry? Should a U.S. corporation be prevented from retaining him? Would it make any difference if he were a consultant or agent instead of a lawyer? The opportunities for abuse here are undeniable but not inevitable."

"Example 2. A U.S. corporation is asked by the Provincial Governor to contribute to the local Health and Welfare Fund, his favorite charity. Is this the obligation of a public-spirited company or an opportunity for covert graft?"

"Example 3. A U.S. corporation, already doing substantial business in a foreign country, wishes to invest as well in one of its local suppliers. The Prime Minister is the latter's principal stockholder. Would it make any difference if it were another U.S. company in which they would be investors together?"

"Example 4. A U.S. corporation's valuable inventory abroad is stored in a remote warehouse. The nearest police are willing to act as after-hours guards if they are paid by the corporation for their overtime services. Must a less effective and more expensive alternative be found?"

"Example 5. A U.S. corporation wishes to form a joint venture with a local firm owned by a member of the ruling family (not unusual or considered unethical in small countries with small elites). But see Example 1."

"Example 6. A U.S. corporation, seeking to locate its plant in an improverished land, invites the improverished Minister of Environmental Affairs to fly to the United States at its expense for a tour of its domestic installations, reportedly to demonstrate that its proposed plant will not pollute the local air and water. At what point does its hospitality become excessive; and should this expensive trip be more permissible than contributing the cash equivalent thereof?"

"Example 7. A U.S. corporation is informed that the government permit for which it was bidding has already been issued to a local corporation of unknown ownership which is willing to sell it to the U.S. bidder at the bid price. If no extra payment is thus involved, does the additional step render the transaction improper?"

As to these examples, Sorensen noted that "reasonable men and even angels will differ on the answers to these and similar questions. At the very least such distinctions should make us less sweeping in our judgments and less confident of our solutions."

Sorensen's words, written nearly 35 years ago, remain relevant today.

I became aware of Sorensen's Foreign Affairs article a few years ago.

Against the current backdrop of aggressive FCPA enforcement and FCPA enforcement actions fitting the exact hypotheticals Sorensen posed, it was on my to-do list to contact him to probe his reaction to the current state of FCPA enforcement, and whether, more broadly, any of the issues and questions have changed much since 1976.

Regrettably, I never got to this item.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for sharing Sorensen's piece and your summary. First-rate.