A Justice Department agreement with Westinghouse Electric Corp. to settle a foreign bribery charge was blocked yesterday, at least temporarily, by a federal judge who challenged the plan's failure to identify the country or official allegedly bribed.
Westinghouse had agreed to plead guilty and pay a $300,000 fine on counts of making false statements to U.S. agencies that financed construction in the unnamed country from 1975 to 1977.
But U.S. District Court Judge Barrington D. Parker questioned the adequacy of the plea-bargain arrangement.
"Why is there no refernce to the government and/or persons involved?" he asked Justice Department attorney D. Jeffrey Hirschberg.
"We believe it is in the interest of the United States that that not be disclosed at this time," the attorney replied.
Westinghouse attorney Vincent J. Fuller then offered to give the judge more information about the case in secret.
Parker asked what precedents there were for the Justice-Westinghouse agreement not to disclose the information. "Here we have a significantly large corporation as opposed to some poor individual who comes before this court," he said. He wondered why there was so much secrecy and "blotting out of information" when the corporation was in court.
Fuller suggested that it was the identity of the foreign official, not concern for Westinghouse, that led to the secrecy request.
Parker finally accepted the Westinghouse documents under seal and delayed a ruling until a hearing this morning.
The judge had also balked, at first, at the plea-bargain agreement reached last fall between Justice and Richard Helms, former director of the Central Intelligence Agency.
Helms finally was allowed to plead "no contest" and was fined on misdemeanor charges that he gave evasive testimony to the Senate. Parker had complained initially about government promise that Helms would not be jailed.
Justice attorneys filed a "criminal information" against Westinghouse yesterday morning, and the company issued a press release in anticipation of the final agreement at a late afternoon hearing.
Hirschberg said the alleged bribery scheme unfolded in late 1974 when a district manager in a Westinghouse foreign sales office agreed to pay an unnamed official $250,000 for his help in getting a civil construction project worth from $30 million to $35 million.
The project was partially financed for the country by the Export-Import Bank, which guarantees loans to help other countries purchase U.S. goods. According to the charges, Westinghouse made 15 separate false statements in Ex-Ian documents by saying it had made no payments beyond those to its named sales represent-ad 3 Westinghouse.
In fact, Hirschberg said, Westinghouse had paid the official the $250,000 disguised as an additional payment to the regular agent. An additional payment of $73,000 was made in 1977, he added, in connection with a related contract that was financed entirely by the Agency for International Development.
In its premature press statement, Westinghouse said that the payments were for a nonnuclear project and were made "entirely without approval by any Westinghouse executive officer."
The statement noted that the firm had voluntarily disclosed the payments in filings required by the Securities and Exchange Commission earlier this year after an employe informed company officials.
The payments had nothing to do with an extensive investigation of a nuclear power plant contract in the Philippines, the statement added.
The case against Westinghouse is the third plea-bargaining arrangement reached this year by a Justice Department task force on overseas bribe cases. It is the first, however, to charge a firm with making false statements.
In April, Control Data Corp. of Minneapolis was fined $1.38 million. In March, the William Co. of Tulsa was fined $198,000.
The government charged in those cases that the firms violated federal wire fraud and currency reporting statutes in sending money overseas to make the bribes. The names of the countries and officials involved were withheld in those cases, too.
Richard W. Beckler, the attorney heading the task force of Justice and SEC attorneys and Customs Service investigators, said the government has no policy against identifying participants in the foreign bribe cases.
"We handle each on a case-by-case basis," he said.
One Justice official suggested that the safety of the foreign official was a factor in not disclosing his name.