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Can anti-bribery enforcement heal social wounds?

Writing today from Richmond, Virginia – again the site of racial justice protest — I argue that anti-bribery enforcement can heal social wounds, and must.

Bribery has victims, as both Genevieve Theriault-Lachance and Jeffrey Kaplan have just reminded us. These victims are harmed, and the harm requires remedies.

Among bribery’s harms are the social rifts it exacerbates. Consumers further distrust corporations. Citizens further distrust their governments.  Nationals distrust foreigners.  Defendants distrust enforcement officials, and vice versa.

The verb “corrupt” historically meant to rot or decay. (Indeed, I once heard a Russian-speaking intellectual explain that the word translated poorly to his context because it presumed the original existence of a healthy thing that, in his experience, never existed.) But the decaying of social cohesion may be an apt way to describe bribery’s effects.

Anti-bribery enforcement has almost surely reduced bribery among companies whose governments rigorously enforce. But could it do more than just deter bribery? Might enforcement not just stem the decay, but actually heal it? Can we imagine something better than mere deterrence, something needed in our time and now lying within our reach?

We can, and indeed we have, as Alexandra Wrage just brought to our attention.  Now pending in the U.S. Congress is a bill that would use FCPA enforcement proceeds to fund overseas anti-corruption initiatives.  (I personally find the bill’s name – the Countering Russian and Other Overseas Kleptocracy Act, or “CROOK Act” – unhelpful in numerous ways so I’ll reference it only once).

The bill would take 5 percent of FCPA enforcement proceeds to fund overseas anti-corruption initiatives. Brilliant.

For several years, many of us have explored ways to spend FCPA enforcement money on programs benefiting bribery’s principal victims – the citizens of the countries where the bribery occurred, usually developing countries. We thought we could mimic U.S. DOJ environmental enforcement, which routinely takes a percentage of the penalties to fund such programs.  But the DOJ funding NGOs in its own discretion has in recent years become a political minefield.

This bill builds a bypass around that minefield. It provides congressional authorization for the funding, and assigns its implementation to the State Department and an Interagency Task Force. Perfect. The funding could only go to countries that are well-positioned to effectuate meaningful reform, and can support governmental or non-governmental organizations.

How would this heal social rifts? Bribery’s victims would know their social conditions don’t go unnoticed.  Corporations would feel they were investing in solutions to the problem, rather than just enriching the U.S. Treasury. Citizens would see their governments progressing on the road to transparency. Nations would less often point fingers at each other. And global bribery enforcement would become more effective, focusing not merely on the supply side of bribery but the demand side as well.

Corruption is almost never cultural in the true sense of the word, but it can be pervasive. So too can be a feeling of futility – that there’s simply nothing that can be done to curb the problem. But followers of this blog know otherwise. Intelligent enforcement can reduce public corruption, stem social decay, restore public health, and heal social divisions between consumer and corporation, citizen and government, native and foreigner.

This week, in Richmond as with so many other places across the country and the world, the need for healing is felt acutely.

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