SCANDALS: A Tough Bribery Probe?

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Elliot Richardson, former Secretary of Defense, former Attorney General, former Ambassador to Britain and present Secretary of Commerce, added another line to his resume last week. He was appointed by President Ford to head a new ten-man panel to probe the damaging issue of foreign bribery by U.S. companies (TIME cover, Feb. 23). The Task Force on Questionable Corporate Payments Abroad—the Administration never mentioned the word bribery in announcing it—includes Cabinet Members Henry Kissinger, William Simon, Donald Rumsfeld and Edward Levi along with Richardson and five other top-flight Presidential Counsellors. It is supposed to study how extensive corporate bribery has been and what can be done to stop it; its final recommendations are due by year's end.

The creation of the panel is the latest step in what appears, at least on the surface, to be a stepped-up Government campaign to get to the bottom of the problem of corporate bribery. The Securities and Exchange Commission has urged corporations to disclose questionable payments voluntarily rather than be found out by investigators. More than 50 companies have confessed to such payments so far; another 35 have either come to the SEC for guidance on making disclosures or are the subject of SEC probes.

The Internal Revenue Service, which regards as unlawful any tax deductions taken by companies for money passed out in foreign bribes, is pushing a "large case audit" program against companies with more than $250 million or so in assets. In about 35 cases, according to IRS Commissioner Donald Alexander, "we have special agents involved"—meaning that the IRS scents possible criminal tax fraud.

The Senate Subcommittee on Multinational Corporations, headed by Idaho Democrat Frank Church, voted last week to turn over to the Justice Department information about Lockheed Aircraft Corp.'s overseas payoffs, to be forwarded to countries involved in the scandals. The Justice Department itself signed agreements with The Netherlands and Italy providing for an exchange of findings about bribegivers and -takers. They are similar to an agreement signed the previous week with Japan, where Lockheed has admitted payoffs totaling $12.5 million.

Yet skepticism is growing in the U.S. and abroad about how eager governments really are to force out all the facts. Agreements between the U.S. Justice Department and The Netherlands, Italy and Japan provide that Washington will hand over the names of suspected bribetakers only to foreign law-enforcement agencies, which can disclose them only during the course of actual legal proceedings against miscreants in government or business. That means that the names may not become public for a long time—if ever.

Unprincipled Man. In The Netherlands, the Justice Ministry has indicated that legal action against Prince Bernhard, who has been accused of taking $1.1 million from Lockheed, is very unlikely. So, under terms of the agreement with the U.S., the three-man committee that is investigating the scandal may not be able to make public any of its findings about the prince. In Japan, opposition parties are branding Premier Takeo Miki a man without principle for having accepted Washington's conditions of confidentiality in receiving information about Lockheed's payoffs.

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