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U.S. business seeks more clarity on foreign bribery law

One hundred dollar notes are seen in this photo illustration. REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won
One hundred dollar notes are seen in this photo illustration. REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won

By Aruna Viswanatha

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. business groups on Tuesday renewed their campaign to amend an anti-foreign bribery law, suggesting authorities should give companies additional defenses against criminal charges.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and others have complained the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, a 1970s-era law that bars U.S. companies and others from paying bribes to officials of foreign governments in exchange for business, is ambiguous.

So far they have unsuccessfully lobbied Congress to amend it.

In November the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission released new information about how they enforce the law.

On Tuesday the groups said that guidance addressed "many, but not all" business concerns, but they also called for additional provisions that would allow companies to escape criminal liability for the misconduct of individual employees if they already have strong safeguards and internal compliance systems in place.

"Such assurance should be provided through legislative reform of the FCPA," the Chamber, the American Bankers Association, the National Association of Manufacturers and two dozen others said in a letter to the federal regulators.

A Justice Department spokesman on Tuesday said the department appreciated the group's input and would "welcome a continuing dialogue on these issues."

U.S. authorities have significantly stepped up enforcement of the FCPA in recent years, extracting hundreds of millions of dollars in fines from Siemens, Alcatel-Lucent, KBR and others.

Some of the largest U.S. companies, including Wal-Mart and Avon Products Inc , have already spent hundreds of millions on internal investigations of potential misconduct.

As part an effort to head off industry concerns, agencies that enforce the law last year provided new details about cases they declined to prosecute. They also gave examples about what kind of due diligence a company should perform on an acquisition target and what kind of person constitutes a foreign official.

In the letter to Lanny Breuer, the head of the criminal division at the Justice Department, and George Canellos, who heads the enforcement division at the SEC, the groups said they appreciated much of the guidance but still had concerns.

For example, the agencies failed to discuss examples that show exactly how much credit a company receives if it self-reports potential violations, the groups said.

Senator Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat who has considered legislation, received positive feedback on the guidance and continues to monitor the issue but has no immediate plans to revisit legislation, his spokesman, Ian Koski, said.

Coons "will remain involved as the dialogue between U.S. businesses and the DOJ continues," Koski said.

(Reporting By Aruna Viswanatha; Editing by Kenneth Barry and Steve Orlofsky)

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