Our singular focus over the past week moved our spouse to ask whether we also plan to redo the walls in Siemens Blue. We’re considering it. But what really comes to mind after the biggest FCPA enforcement action in history is that it involves not a U.S. company — not a Boeing or an Exxon or a GE — but “a corporation organized under the laws of Germany with its principal offices in Berlin and Munich.” It was snared by the FCPA because, as the Justice Department’s Information put it: “As of March 12, 2001, Siemens was listed on the New York Stock Exchange and was an ‘issuer’ as that term is used in the FCPA. 15 U.S.C. § 78dd-1(a). By virtue of its status as an issuer, Siemens was required to comply with the provisions of the FCPA.”
We shouldn’t be too surprised that the big hammer fell on a foreign company. Since 1998, the pace of investigations and enforcement actions involving foreign companies has accelerated. In addition to Siemens, overseas names in the FCPA news include ABB Ltd (Switzerland), Vetco Gray UK Ltd, Akzo Nobel, NV (the Netherlands), Statoil ASA (Norway), AstraZeneca (UK-Sweden), BAE Systems (UK), DaimlerChrysler (Germany), Innospec (UK), Magyar Telekom (Hungary), Norsk Hydro (Norway), Novo Nordisk (Denmark), Panalpina (Switzerland), Smith & Nephew (UK) and Total (France), among others.
Outside America’s borders, its globo-cop role may not sit well with everyone (it makes a lot of Americans uneasy, too). But the FCPA’s long reach and sharp teeth are changing global business practices. Our favorite pundit said it was probably the threat of criminal prosecution under the FCPA that finally scared Siemens enough to come clean. That’s what Congress had in mind in 1998 when it expanded the FCPA to cover foreign companies that weren’t issuers when they act unlawfully while within the territory of the U.S. ; American businesses needed a more level playing field.
But fighting public graft is also the right thing to do. A. A. Sommer, Jr., a commissioner of the SEC, said in 1976, a year before enactment of the FCPA, that “there are moral problems as well as legal problems that go far beyond simply the question of illegal payoffs to foreign officials. There are questions concerning the role of multinational corporations, the extent to which they have obligations to the countries in which they conduct their business, the extent to which they should seek to raise the standards of conduct there, the respect which they should show the laws of other countries.” Thirty-two years later the Wall Street Journal could say that the quixotic Foreign Corrupt Practices Act had turned into one of Congress’s finer moments.
The DOJ’s Matthew Friedrich summed up the case this week with these words:
For let there be no doubt that corruption is not a victimless offense. Corruption is not a gentlemen’s agreement where no one gets hurt. People do get hurt. And the people who are hurt the worst are often residents of the poorest countries on the face of the earth, especially where it occurs in the context of government infrastructure projects, contracts in which crucial development decisions are made, in which a country will live by those decisions for good or for bad for years down the road, and where those decisions are made using precious and scarce national resources.
That’s why the fight against international public corruption is worthwhile, and why the FCPA makes sense.