This Is Time for FCPA Compliance, Not for ‘Reform’ of the Statute

By Pamela J. Bethel

The latest Wal-Mart news is that the company has been active in a concerted campaign by an arm of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to weaken the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), which prohibits U.S. companies from bribing officials of foreign governments.

The Washington Post reported on its front page on April 26, 2012, that Wal-Mart, along with many other companies, has been helping to fund the chamber’s efforts to amend the FCPA. This is particularly interesting, the Post reported, in view of current allegations that the retailing giant engaged in a systematic program of payments to Mexican government officials several years ago in order to facilitate its growth in the Mexican market.

The Post says there’s no evidence that Wal-Mart’s participation in the lobbying effort had anything to do with its questionable activities in Mexico, and it’s indeed likely that there’s no connection. Quite often, corporations take actions that they think will make the business climate, at home and abroad, more favorable and less fraught with risk, and that’s what Wal-Mart appears to have done here.

That raises the question of whether the Post story was really worth Page One play. Wal-Mart’s participation in the Chamber lobbying effort, which included many other major U.S. companies, may be more routine than the Post is implying.

However, one thing is becoming clear. In view of the explosive allegations against Wal-Mart and the launch of congressional investigations into its Mexican payments, it’s quite unlikely that any change in the FCPA is in the offing. The Obama administration has in the past aligned itself with supporters of tough FCPA enforcement, and there’s no indication that Lanny Breuer, assistant attorney general for the Criminal Division at Justice, is going to change his mind any time soon.

So this is a good time for companies doing business abroad to be aware that there’s no reduction in sight in the level of scrutiny of overseas business transactions. If there was ever a time to emphasize compliance, this is the time.

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