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American companies lost $24 billion over five years in international contracts in which bribes were involved, the State Department says in a classified report being sent to Congress today. A major problem, officials said, is that many countries still allow businesses to claim bribery as a tax deduction -- a practice the Clinton administration says it is trying to stop. Stuart Eizenstat, undersecretary of state for economic affairs, disclosed the estimate in a briefing yesterday on U.S. plans to get countries to comply with a new anti-bribery treaty.

Merrill Lynch agreed to pay $25 million to settle charges in the United States and Britain that it helped Sumitomo manipulate the copper market in 1995. Merrill will pay $15 million to settle U.S. charges that it provided more than $500 million through Sumitomo and advised the Japanese trading company on how to inflate copper prices. Merrill will also pay $10.2 million to resolve London Metal Exchange charges in the Sumitomo case. Merrill neither admitted not denied the charges.

Paul Allen's Charter Communications agreed to buy Bresnan Communications for $2.1 billion in stock and cash, the latest in a series of purchases that have made Charter the nation's fourth-biggest cable company. Bresnan is 50 percent owned by AT&T's Broadband and Internet Services, the former Tele-Communications Inc.

The National Association of Securities Dealers will remove 55 small companies from its Over-the-Counter Bulletin Board tomorrow, as rules take effect requiring those companies to file public financial reports. The change eventually could force as many as half of the 6,651 small companies off the bulletin board, as the eligibility requirements are phased in over the next year.

A former Chiquita lawyer accused of stealing voice-mail messages from the banana company that were used in a Cincinnati Enquirer expose pleaded no contest to reduced charges and got two years' probation. George G. Ventura entered his plea to misdemeanor charges of attempted unauthorized access to computer systems. In exchange, prosecutors dropped 10 felony charges that carried sentences of up to 12 1/2 years in prison.

Coca-Cola warned that its second-quarter profit will be hurt by the recent recalls and bans on its drinks in Europe and by falling sales in some of its largest markets, including Asia.

General Motors said it plans to acquire the rights from AM General Corp. to market and distribute the Hummer, the civilian version of the military's tank-like "Humvee" all-terrain vehicle.

Microsoft failed to persuade a federal judge to narrow the scope of Caldera's $1.6 billion antitrust lawsuit, which is set to go to trial in Salt Lake City in January. Caldera, a closely held Orem, Utah-based software company, has accused Microsoft of engaging in a series of anti-competitive actions to keep Caldera's DR DOS operating system out of the marketplace.

RECALLS

About 7,000 pairs of jeans for boys were voluntarily recalled because the waist snap comes off and poses a possible choking hazard. The jeans were sold between March and June of this year by the children's clothing store Gymboree, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission said. The jeans sold for about $19 each and had a blue label that reads "GYMSPORT" and "Made in Mexico." Consumers should return the jeans to a Gymboree store for a full refund. For more information, consumers can contact the Gymboree company at 1-800-558-9885.

LOCAL BUSINESS

Exxon's planned $85 billion buyout of Fairfax-based Mobil would not stifle competition in oil exploration and production, the European Union's top antitrust official said, removing a key hurdle for EU approval of the merger of the two biggest U.S. oil companies.

Dominion Resources and Consolidated Natural Gas shareholders voted to approve their merger into a fully integrated natural gas and electric company. Shareholders of Richmond-based Dominion approved the merger with 99 percent voting in favor, while 98 percent of the shareholders of Pittsburgh-based CNG said yes to the deal. Columbia Energy Group of Herndon had tried unsuccessfully to persuade CNG to drop plans to merge with Dominion in favor of an offer from Columbia.

Network Solutions of Herndon said it plans to open a regional office in Hong Kong this month.

ICF Kaiser International completed the sale of its Consulting Group to the group's management and CM Equity Partners of New York for $70.6 million. The sale is part of a major restructuring by the financially troubled engineering and environment company based in Fairfax. ICF Kaiser, which plans to remove "ICF" from its name, will retain a 10 percent interest in the consulting firm, which is also based in Fairfax.