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Harry Cassin
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What, Then, Is A Bribe?

A reader called our attention to an extraordinary statement made in February by Richard Alderman, left, director of the U.K.’s Serious Fraud Office. His subject was how Britain’s new bribery bill will work.

He was asked about transferring a majority interest in a profitable subsidiary of a (presumably) U.K. company to the family of the president of a developing country. The transfer was a condition of continuing to do business there.

Here’s what he said:

While we cannot compromise overall ethical standards, there needs to be considerable sensitivity as to how those standards play out . . .

And so, what does this mean? Let me give you an example.

I was approached by the Board of a corporate that is involved in one of these [developing] countries. They had a 100% subsidiary. This was becoming very profitable and so they received an approach from the Government. They were told that if they wanted to continue to do business in the country then they would need to transfer a 51% interest in the subsidiary to the family of the President. That gave rise to all sorts of worries for them for obvious reasons. One of these was whether or not the SFO would take the view that payment in this way was a bribe. They were concerned we might investigate and prosecute.

I assured them that I would have no intention of doing that whatsoever. I said I recognised the very great difficulty of the moral and ethical position that they were in. This was something they would have to resolve. What I could do though was to give them comfort that whatever they did, we would be sensitive to the circumstances here and would not seek to take any action, even if technically the transfer of the interest in the subsidiary constituted a bribe.

They found that very helpful.

Under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the transfer to the president’s family would likely be illegal.

Director Alderman’s full remarks can be found here.

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