Bethlehem Steel Corp. pleaded guilty yesterday to an elaborate scheme in which it padded nearly $2 million onto shipowners' bills to raise the money to win lucrative repair contracts.
The scheme operated over a five-year period and funneled part of the money through a phony Swiss corporation.
The giant Bethlehem corporation pleaded guilty to 10 felony counts of a criminal information filed yesterday morning in U.S. District Court in New York. Although the Justice Department acknowledged that it does not intend to charge any officer, employe or agent of bethlehem in connection with the investigation, the company itself could be liable for a $518,000 fine. w
Nothing in the papers filed in court yesterday precludes possible prosection of individuals who accepted the bribes. The Justice Department also held open the possibility of subsequent criminal prosecution of individuals if additional information arises. It also said it may prosecute individuals involved in the scheme for embezzlement or theft of funds from Bethlehem.
From 1972 to 1976, the company paid shipowners' representatives more than $400,000 in bribes to throw ship-repair business to Bethlehem and to help expedite payments. Bethlehem has ship-repair yards in Baltimore; Beaumont, Tex.; Boston; Hoboken, N.J.; San Francisco, and San Pedro, Calif.
Some of the bribe money was raised by adding commissions for Office pour le Financement du Commerce et de l'Industrie S.A. (OFCI) of Clur, Switzerland, which purportedly acted as Bethlehem's ship-repair sales agent. The commissions, ranging from 1.5 percent to 6.5 percent, were added into totals in invoices sent to ship-owners.
Sometimes, apparently companies unwittingly financed bribes involving their own ships, while other times the charges were added to other bills indiscriminately to raise money. The commission scheme raised $1.7 million, of which $1.5 million was left for the bribery fund after the expenses of operating OFCI were deducted.
Another scheme, which operated out of the Baltimore shipyard, generated funds for bribes by submission of false invoices for materials never received and services never rendered, according to the criminal information filed in New York. The invoices were prepared, submitted and approved by Baltimore shipyard and accounting personnel.
In some cases bribes were paid directly to shipowner representatives. In others, the money was smuggled in to the United States, Colombia or Venezuela to be funneled to the bribed agent.
Bethlehem said yesterday that it had "accepted corporate responsibility" for the unlawful payments. The company also said that the conditions charged were terminated by Bethlehem in 1976, and that a "substantial amount of funds involved was recovered by Bethlehem at that time."
In January 1977, Bethlehem filed a related civil action in Philadelphia against Clifford Wise and Thomas LaMonica, two former employes in its New York ship repair sales office, to recover monies wrongfully obtained by them from Bethlehem, according to corporate spokesman Henry VonSpreckelsen.
Bethlehem's attorney, Peter Fleming, entered the corporation's guilty plea, waiving indictment. The 10-count criminal information charged conspiracy, violation of federal currency laws by smuggling $115,000 into the United States from Switzerland, mail fraud and wire fraud in connection with the illegal payments.
The conspiracy was carried out by various unnamed employes in the company's ship repairs division and by other unnamed conspirators.
The information also alleged that the scheme involved illegal payments to representatives of two foreign navies, which Bethlehem's attorney said the company did not concede
The plea was accepted by Judge Robert W. Sweet, who set sentencing for Aug. 25.
Bethlehem said that, as part of its plea, the company agreed that a fine of $200,000 "would not be inappropriate."