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Is FBI sting the start of a real crackdown on foreign business bribery?

bribery

the offering, giving, receiving, or soliciting of something of value for the purpose of influencing the action of an official in the discharge of his or her public or legal duties

John Benson Wier III, 46 and president of St. Petersburg's SRT Supply, was in Las Vegas this week hawking military equipment from Booth 26506 at the 2010 Shooting, Hunting, Outdoor Trade show.

His sales pitch was short lived. He was one of 22 arrested in a Federal Bureau of Investigation sting Monday and charged with attempting to bribe foreign officials and money laundering.

FBI agents posing as defense officials of an African country proposed a scheme in which U.S. companies would pay 20 percent "commissions" to equip a presidential guard with pistols, tear-gas launchers, bulletproof vests and other supplies.

Wier, says the U.S. Department of Justice, was supposed to provide 1,800 grip-mounted laser sites. Also arrested was Andrew Bigelow, 40, managing partner and director of government programs for a Sarasota company called Gun Search that sells machine guns, grenade launchers and other small arms.

This week, 150 FBI agents executed 14 search warrants in locations across the country, including St. Petersburg.

The 16 indictments unsealed Tuesday represent the largest single investigation and prosecution against individuals in the history of the Department of Justice's enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

That law, if you're not familiar with it, basically tells U.S. companies "thou shalt not bribe" people overseas to win business.

It does not matter if greasing palms still happens to be a common way to transact commerce in many parts of the globe.

This latest and continuing investigation has been under way for 2 1/2 years, Assistant Attorney General Lanny A. Breuer said. More than 140 open investigations into violations of bribery laws are pending. "From now on, would-be FCPA (Foreign Corrupt Practices Act) violators should stop and ponder whether the person they are trying to bribe might really be a federal agent," Breuer said.

Federal support of the foreign antibribery law has yo-yoed wildly since it hit the books in 1977. We'll have to wait and see if the Obama administration really intends a get-tougher approach to broad enforcement or plans occasional publicity events involving smaller businesses.

A few other examples of potential Foreign Corrupt Practices Act violations have cropped up here in recent years with little consequence.

Tampa engineering firm PBSJ Corp. this month voluntarily disclosed to the Securities and Exchange Commission that its PBS&J International subsidiary might have violated the antibribery law. There are few details yet.

And four years ago, Outback Steakhouse executives said its South Korean subsidiary might have bribed government officials. The subsidiary executives were replaced, and no other federal action was ever taken against the company.

In the latest case, seven of the 22 people arrested are from Florida. Sounds like we have some local cleaning up of "corrupt practices" to do.

Robert Trigaux can be reached at trigaux@sptimes.com.

Is FBI sting the start of a real crackdown on foreign business bribery? 01/20/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, January 20, 2010 7:19pm]
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