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Justice Department Drops Foreign Bribery Case


The Justice Department has hit a wall in its pursuit of several cases under the law known as the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. This week, prosecutors abandoned one case against a group of businessmen in the military equipment industry. It alleged they had tried to bribe African government officials. That follows two other overseas bribery cases where the Justice Department couldn't make charges stick. As NPR's Carrie Johnson reports, that's raising questions about the future of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: For years, when the Justice Department came knocking, companies willingly paid big-dollar settlements rather than go to court and fight allegations of foreign bribery. But lately, some companies and individual executives have rolled the dice. And that hasn't gone too well for the government. Exhibit A: a huge sting operation where the FBI enlisted an informant to get businessmen on tape agreeing to pay kickbacks to win lucrative contracts in Africa. Michael Madigan is a defense lawyer whose client was found not guilty.

MICHAEL MADIGAN: The so-called snitch that they chose was one of the worst individuals that you can imagine, who had a 30-year cocaine and other drug problems, who had stolen millions of dollars and hidden them in Swiss bank accounts.

JOHNSON: And in the recordings, the informant used neutral words like commission to describe the money changing hands.

MADIGAN: Never did they use the word bribe, never did they suggest a kickback.

JOHNSON: That wasn't enough for two separate juries in Washington, D.C., says defense lawyer Matthew Menchel.

MATTHEW MENCHEL: They had two trials, the combined total of which, I think, was about nine months of actual in-court work. They were not able to obtain a conviction against anyone. And I think the government wisely realized that there was no reason to think that any further prosecutions of these defendants would change.

JOHNSON: So the Justice Department took the unusual step of backing away from a case that took years to build. In court papers, prosecutors said they had been hurt by rulings that barred them from introducing evidence about the businessmen's prior bad acts. Former prosecutor Philip Urofsky has been fielding lots of questions about what it means for other cases.

PHILIP UROFSKY: I don't think it's going to embolden companies. Individuals may be a different story.

JOHNSON: That's because unlike companies, individual executives face the possibility of prison time and they may be more open to fight justice in court. That said, Urofsky predicts greater supervision by higher-ups at Justice and more oversight of the way lawyers make decisions in the courtroom. Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.