The comments were polite but pointed. This blog, the reader said, showers attention on bribe payers but ignores bribe takers. That’s not fair. Those taking kickbacks are at least as culpable as those paying them.
We agree, but we have a defense. The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act — our subject in this space — targets bribe payers exclusively and gives bribe takers a pass. We talked about the reasons for it in a post earlier this year.
It’s true, though, that most bribes start with a public official who wants something extra. That’s how people typically experience public graft. An official makes it clear that his or her office is for sale. It first happened to us that way, just after law school.
The senior partner of the firm where we worked sent us to the Secretary of State — a state-level official in charge of regulating corporations. He’d revoked an out-of-state client’s registration because of a couple of missed filings. The partner asked us to write a brief arguing the points of law and equity, then present the arguments in person to the Secretary of State.
The Secretary, when we met him, was a big man with lots of wavy white hair. He’d been an elected gatekeeper for decades. His office, deep inside the state capitol, had walls covered with pictures of him shaking hands with famous people.
We explained our arguments. Then he asked, “But counselor, do you have any good reasons why I should readmit your client?”
“Well, sir, as pointed out in the brief . . . “
He cut us off mid-sentence. “But do you have any good reasons why I should readmit your client?” This time he emphasized the word good, saying it slowly and making it sound like some kind of obscenity. “Do you have any guuuuud reasons . . . .”
We got it. He wanted a bribe. “No,” we said. “The reasons in the brief are all we’re offering.”
“Too bad,” he said. “I can’t help you.”
We told the senior partner what had happened. “Oh ya, he always asks new guys for something extra,” the partner said. “Well, the client will just have to pay the fines and apply to be readmitted.” The senior partner’s comments sounded surprisingly casual to us, and we wondered if he’d been testing us all along, sending us into the lion’s den to see how we’d react.
We may have passed a test with the partner, but the experience left us feeling discouraged. We’d prepared carefully but that didn’t matter. The system operated not on merit but on sleaze.
Corruption, we saw, doesn’t just distort the rule of law, it replaces it.
That’s why the FCPA and laws like it are important.