By Brett Wolf
ST. LOUIS, March 17 (Complinet) - The Chamber of Commerce has hired former Attorney General Michael Mukasey to lobby Congress to amend the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which bars American companies from bribing foreign officials, an official of the business advocacy group said.
The Chamber believes the act may be making U.S. businesses less competitive and would like Congress to overhaul the 34-year-old law. Tougher enforcement of the act by the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission has raised U.S. business concern over its impact, even as other countries move to tighten their own anti-bribery statutes.
Supporters of global anti-corruption efforts expressed concern that amending the law could signal a weakening of Washington's commitment.
Mukasey brings a "unique perspective" to the effort to amend the act, due to his experience as attorney general under former President George W. Bush and as a chief judge of the District Court for the Southern District of New York, a chamber official said.
"We plan on working with him closely where he can provide us strategic guidance for reforms to the FCPA statute. (It) is ripe for some reform," said Harold Kim, senior vice president for legal reform initiatives at the Chamber Institute for Legal Reform.
Five months ago the chamber released a paper that called on Congress to amend the anti-bribery act to reduce its "onerous" impact on U.S. businesses. Recommendations included that the FCPA's definition of a "foreign official" be clarified to distinguish from employees of state-owned companies, and that firms with top-notch compliance programs be permitted to fight the imposition of criminal liability based on the actions of rogue employees.
Richard Cassin, a lawyer who helps clients comply with the FCPA and runs a blog dedicated to the statute, said Mukasey's entry into the debate "raises the profile of the chamber's campaign." He added that Mukasey "brings a lot of credibility."
Cassin noted that the White House has not taken a public position in favor of amending the act and suggested that without support from the Obama administration, "there is no real chance of changing the FCPA." He said, however, that on Capitol Hill, Senators Amy Klobuchar and Christopher Coons have indicated an interest in amending the act.
U.S. President Barack Obama has made the fight against international corruption a prominent theme of his foreign policy. He told the United Nations last September that the United States was leading a global effort to combat corruption, which he called "the single greatest barrier to prosperity" in many places, and "a profound violation of human rights."
His words echoed a government National Security Strategy document released last May that vowed an international effort to increase transparency and "make it harder for officials to steal." The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission in 2009 announced the creation of a new unit dedicated to enforcing the FCPA and it has vowed to deal with violations "severely."
Anti-corruption group Transparency International is concerned about the chamber's push to alter the FCPA, in part because the law has "played an important role in encouraging reform in many countries around the world," group spokeswoman Nancy Zucker Boswell said.
"We would be concerned lest (the United States) take action that might send a signal that we are backing up from a very strong commitment to the anti-corruption agenda," Boswell said.
She said that a better option than amending the FCPA might be for the Justice Department to provide more guidance to help businesses comply with the law and better understand precisely what activity it prohibits.
Other countries are stepping up their anti-corruption efforts, amid pressure exerted by the departments of State, Justice and Commerce. Britain's Bribery Act, which the chamber's legal arm has described as tougher than the law, is expected to become effective later this year.
Spain, the Netherlands, and the Czech Republic have updated their anti-bribery laws. And last month, China adopted a foreign bribery law. Cassin said the Russian Duma also was working on an overseas bribery law.
"The strategy the Administration is following - which dates back to Bill Clinton's time in the White House - is to marshal international support in fighting public corruption, and in that way create a more level playing field for American businesses overseas," Cassin said.
(Editing by Randall Mikkelsen)
(This article was first published in Complinet (www.complinet.com). Complinet, part of Thomson Reuters, is a leading provider of connected risk and compliance information and on-line solutions to the global financial services community.)