FBI beefs up resources against foreign corruption

WASHINGTON (AP) — The FBI is stepping up efforts against international corruption, creating new squads to search for bribery cases that are rooted overseas but reach to the United States, law enforcement officials said.

The three squads, based in the FBI’s largest field offices, will concentrate on a key priority the Justice Department set over the past decade.

Officials say that in the expanding global economy, the additional resources are needed to prevent corruption’s ripple effects in the U.S. or destabilization of foreign governments. The work complements the Justice Department’s ongoing efforts against corruption and the enrichment of foreign rulers at the expense of their citizens, officials said.

“Corruption leads to lack of confidence in government. Lack of confidence in government leads to failed states. Failed states lead to terror and national security issues,’ said Jeffrey Sallet, chief of the FBI’s public corruption and civil rights section, in an interview.

The initiative’s goals are to identify additional violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, which makes bribing foreign officials for business a crime, to prosecute cases in U.S. courts and to build on the FBI’s expertise in the area.

More than 50 people have been convicted of violations of that law and related crimes since 2009, and some 50 corporations have paid more than $3 billion in penalties and forfeitures during that same time period, the Justice Department said. Last month, the department announced a $772 million penalty against Alstom SA, a French power and transportation company with a U.S. subsidiary, to resolve criminal allegations that executives had bribed officials in foreign countries for business.

Common bribery schemes involve efforts by corporate officials to curry favor with foreign government leaders for help with business. For example, a Chinese subsidiary of Avon Products Inc., a U.S. cosmetics company, pleaded guilty last month to charges that executives and employees tried to conceal gifts, cash and other favors given to Chinese officials to obtain business benefits.

Under the new initiative, roughly 30 agents will be assigned to squads based in New York, Washington and Los Angeles, Sallet said.

The Washington field office has had a dedicated foreign corruption squad for several years, though it also worked on other corporate fraud, said Jennifer Leonard, who supervises the office’s public corruption and white-collar crime agents. Now that squad, along with the other two, will report to FBI headquarters and have more resources.

“We’ll just be falling within an enhanced program,” Leonard said.

As the government in recent years has ramped up its focus on overseas corruption, defense lawyers and business groups have criticized the approach as overly aggressive and inconsistent. Despite successes, federal prosecutors in Washington endured a high-profile stumble in 2012 with the collapse of a case against businessmen accused of bribing undercover FBI agents to do business in the African nation of Gabon.

“I think all of us collectively would like a greater degree of clarity on the statute, and I think we would love a greater degree of clarity from the agencies as to what their view is on some of these matters,” said William Steinman, a Washington defense lawyer who specializes in foreign corruption cases.

FBI officials hope the new structure adds expertise for investigations that can be challenging and labor intensive. They also hope to build additional criminal cases against individuals, beyond large penalties levied against corporations.

“We really believe this is a global responsibility of the U.S. government,” Sallet said.

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