A bitter rift has developed between the Justice and Commerce Departments over the implementation of the foreign anti-bribery statutes overwhelmingly approved by Congress last December.
Commerce thinks Justice should provide U.S. businessmen with guidance about how it will enforce the legislation.
Justice has refused to enlarge on the law, which makes it a crime to pay a bribe to a foreign official.
Corporate officers, if convicted under the act, could face five years in prison or fines of up to $10,000 or both. A corporation could be fined as much as $1 million, one of the stiffest monetary penalties on the books.
On Sept. 26, in a paragraph buried within a little noticed statement calling for increased exports, President Carter came down on the side of Commerce.
"At my direction," he said, "the Justice Department will provide guidance to the business community concerning its enforcement priorities under the recently enacted foreign antibribery statute."
But Justice apparently is willing to provide business with only the sparest of interpretations.
"We're going to set forth the type of conduct we think is most eggregious," says Philip B. Heymann, assistant attorney general for the criminal division. "What we won't state is what we won't prosecute."
Another high Justice Department official, who refused to be identifid, said: "All they (businessmen) want to know is who they can bribe and who they can't. Well, we're not going to tell them - we'll go down kicking and screaming on this one."
Lined up with Justice against interpreting the law is the Securities and Exchange Commission. The State Department, on the other hand, leans toward the Commerce Department's viewpoint.
The controversy grew out of the findings of an executive committee created last spring by Carter to come up with ways to spur exports. The committee was headed by Commerce Secretary Juanita Kreps.
Nobody is clear on how the foreign bribery statue became an issue in the Kreps committee. But the criminal section of Justice suddenly was told to provide the White house with information on how it would give exporters guidelines on enforcement of the controversial bribery law.
According to one Justice source, Justice gave the White House a relatively innocuous reply. "We didn't want to use the word 'guidance,' let alone 'guidelines'" says this source. "But Commerce and the White House stuck in 'guidance' anyway."
The loudest calls for guidance on the law come from lawyers representing exporting companies. Prominent among these are Washington attorneys Walter Surrey and Lloyd Cutler.
Surrey voiced his opposition to a bribery law in meetings with representatives and senators when the legislation was being considered last year. Both men now are active in negotiating an international treaty on bribery and in seeking to amend the U.S. law to make it less objectionable to U.S. businessmen and foreigners.
But opposition to the law is not limited to Washington attorneys.
Donald Weadon, an international lawyer based in San Francisco, represents medium-sized high technology firms. Weadon, who was here last week trying to get guidance for his clients, says: "Because of the vagaries of the law, it's going to have a chilling effect on exports. The government that wrote the law can't even tell us what the law means."
Particularly troubling to attorneys is a section of the law that makes their U.S. clients responsible for the actions of their foreign agents.
Dan Burt, an international attorney from Marblehead, Mass., whose firm has offices abroad, says: "We have two partners and three associates working full time on this. We have lots of trouble giving clients advice."
Indeed, several attorneys have told government officials that their corporate clients were forced to call off multi-million dollar deals because they could not get a clear-cut interpretation of the law.