The Justice Department announced yesterday that it will provide business officials and attorneys with "guidance about the meaning and application of the antibribery provisions" of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
Exporting companies and their Washington attorneys have been lobbying for such guidance since the act was passed in December 1977.
They have been joined by the Commerce and State departments, as well as the White House.
However, the Securities and Exchange Commission, which shares responsibility for enforcing the act, refused to join the Justice Department in offering guidance to exporters on questionable payments.
The act makes it a crime for an officer, director or employe of a U.S. corporation to pay or offer to pay a bribe to a foreign official, political party or candidate in exchange for influence.
Richard Shine, chief of the department's multinational fraud branch, said the companies won't get advice. "All we are doing is to say we will or will not take enforcement action. We won't say why," said Shine.
He expects many companies to seek guidance. "We get 50 to 60 phone calls a day now," he said.
The Justice Department said it will issue releases on each case "which generally describe the nature of the transaction and the department's enforcement decision."
The department, in its press release announcing the so-called "review procedure," said it has "agreed to provide maximum possible lawful protection from public disclosure of confidential business information submitted by a company."
The Justice Department and the SEC don't agree on the guidance issue.
Shine said that the changes were "probably very slim" that the SEC would take an enforcement action against a company after the Justice Department had told the company that its action didn't violate the act.
The SEC "has generally not disagreed with our view," Shine added.
But an SEC spokesman said last night that "the commission has never agreed to be bound by Justice's determinations.
Under the act, corporate officers, if convicted, could face five years in prison, or fines of up to $10,000 or both.