The Supreme Court cleared the way yesterday for publication of a government suit against International Telephone & Telegraph Corp. that is expected to name some foreign recipients of alleged bribes paid by the giant multinational company.
This ends a seven-month effort by ITT to block public disclosure of the details of a suit that was brought by the Securities and Exchange Commission after a two-year investigation. The suit, called a civil complaint, has been held under seal at U.S. District Court here while ITT argued its case up to the Supreme Court.
The court issued a one-sentence denial, without elaboration, of ITT's application to Chief Justice Warren Burger for a stay of publication of the suit until it could present its side of the case in closed court.
That means the SEC complaint could be released today by U.S. District Court Judge George Hart Jr. if he receives the high court decision, which was mailed yesterday to him and to the U.S. Court of Appeals.
ITT has argued repeatedly that publication of the names of foreigners who allegedly got payments could result in bodily harm to them. It has also labelled "trade secrets" the touchy details of the SEC complaint.
Saying ITT was not opposed to a "generic disclosure" of the alleged payments, the company's lawyers challenged the SEC's authority to publish the specific findings of its investigation.
"There is a substantial issue of whether the commission is exceeding its authority," argued an, ITT attorney, John Schafer of Covington & Burling. "We should be allowed to test it."
ITT first went before Judge Hart in March 1976, when the SEC launched its probe of alleged foreign payments by the company. At ITT's request, Hart placed a seal order on all phases of the then-developing investigation.
This March 24, after the SEC had notified the company of its intention to file a suit, Judge Hart denied an ITT request to extend the seal.
Hart said the court "has no power to prohibit the SEC form making allegations in the complaint which are not materially untrue or libelous."
ITT pressed its case to the appeals
ITT lawyer Schafer said yesterday that the Supreme Court decision "makes moot the whole issue."
In a statement issued last night, ITT called the SEC complaint unjustified. It said it will contest SEC allegations, apparently included in the complaint, that the company is continuing to violate the securities laws.
In the course of its legal battle to block publication of the details of the SEC findings.ITT made its own internal probe of the payments. The company published a generally worded report, which said some $8 million in questionable payments were made to unnamed foriegners between 1970 and 1975.
In another related case the SEC this May asked Judge Hart to find ITT in contempt of an order he issued in May 1976 directing the company to comply, with an SEC subpoena for documents and records. Hart still must rule on this issue.