The World Bank last week debarred a U.K subsidiary of Macmillan Publishers for six years (reviewable after three years) after the parent company self-reported to the bank corrupt payments to public officials in Sudan. The bribes were unsuccessful in landing sales of textbooks under the World Bank-administered Sudan Multi-Donor Trust Fund.
The company also announced last week that it self-disclosed the payments to the U.K.’s Serious Fraud Office.
Graft is always bad. In a country like Sudan, its impact is magnified. After 20 years of civil war and lawlessness, Sudan ranks fourth worst on the Corruption Perception Index and third worst on the Failed States Index, trailed only by Somalia and Zimbabwe. Its people can expect to live about 52 years, compared with 62 in Cambodia, 72 in Indonesia, and 82 in Japan. Per capita gross domestic product (purchasing power) for its 41 million people is $2,300 while the world average is $10,500.
Millions there struggle every day for shelter, drinkable water, food, medicines, and education. Public corruption diverts money from basic necessities. It literally takes food off the table and textbooks out of the hands of children.
The World Bank’s press release about the debarment was all business but Macmillan’s was different, carrying a hint of sadness that was entirely fitting. In her public statement, Annette Thomas, Macmillan’s chief executive, did something rare in the business world: she acknowledged the victims of corruption and the harm inflicted on them (even unsuccessful bribes help perpetuate corrupt systems and rulers).
Awareness of that harm was a factor leading to enactment of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Although this case doesn’t involve the FCPA, it’s a reminder of why the FCPA and laws like it matter.
When A. A. Sommer, Jr. was a commissioner of the SEC in 1976, a year before the FCPA became law, he said: “[T]here 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.” Three decades later the once skeptical Wall Street Journal could say the quixotic Foreign Corrupt Practices Act had turned into one of Congress’s finer moments.
Corruption ruins millions, maybe billions of lives. Those who say graft is a crime against humanity are more right than the rest of us like to admit. The DOJ, SEC, Serious Fraud Office, and World Bank should use all available tools to pursue and punish those who commit public bribery anywhere. Prosecutors shouldn’t be diverted by the weird corporatization of government services that blurs the distinction of who’s a “foreign official.” And they shouldn’t compromise ethics because “black knights” will rush in where honest companies fear to tread. That’s a short-term and short-sighted view of the world and the marketplace.
Macmillan didn’t say how much it paid Sudanese officials. But a bribe of any size that could have deprived a child of a textbook would be disturbing. CEO Annette Thomas said, “We are deeply shocked to have discovered these issues, and are sorry for the harm that such behaviour will have done.”
The World Bank’s April 30, 2010 announcement of Macmillan (U.K.) Limited’s debarment is here.
Macmillan Publisher’s May 6, 2010 announcement is here.