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ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

And I'm Melissa Block.

We're going to hear now about one of the federal government's most aggressive efforts to police corporate crime. It comes from a post-Watergate law called the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Prosecutors have used the law to get more than $1 billion in bribery fines from huge companies, including Siemens and DaimlerChrysler. But now the Chamber of Commerce is pushing back.

BLOCK: As NPR's Carrie Johnson reports, the chamber has hired former Justice Department leaders to make the case that the law is out of date.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, or FCPA, dates back to the 1970s, a time when executives carried briefcases stuffed with cash to win lucrative contracts from foreign governments. The FCPA was supposed to put an end to all that, by making it a crime for U.S. companies to offer money to employees of foreign governments to secure a business advantage.

More than 30 years later, the law is open for debate all over again. Former Attorney General Michael Mukasey says the law needs to be narrowed, because being charged with a crime has huge consequences for business.

MICHAEL MUKASEY: The person who did it, yes, but not the company which is in effect the death knell for the company and for a whole lot of employees and stockholders who didn't do anything wrong.

JOHNSON: Mukasey is working with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce to convince members of Congress to overhaul the foreign bribery law. And he's attracted support from both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, who say they want to introduce a bipartisan update later this year.

Why now? Well, for decades, the Justice Department took the FCPA out of its toolbox every once in a while. But over the last few years, foreign bribery investigations have made up a more important and high-profile part of prosecutors' caseloads.

Lanny Breuer runs the criminal division at the Justice Department.

LANNY BREUER: American companies and foreign companies should be competing based on the quality of their goods, the quality of their services, and not because they're committing crimes.

JOHNSON: The law applies to both U.S. companies and foreign businesses that have operations in this country. Breuer says that levels the playing field. But executives at the Chamber of Commerce say the law is producing a lot of confusion and big legal bills. They're urging Congress to amend the law in a handful of ways, and that includes a provision to cut back on legal liability for companies that acquire other businesses with foreign bribery troubles.

And another controversial provision, making clear that companies that require employees to behave on the up and up, can use those compliance programs as a defense to fight possible criminal charges.

Harold Kim is a senior vice president at the chamber.

HAROLD KIM: Providing more clarity as to what the law means is really the aim and purpose of this, while ensuring that the enforcement agencies can still go after the bad guys.

SARAH PRAY: The U.S. Chamber is being disingenuous.

JOHNSON: That's Sarah Pray. She follows Africa policy for the Open Society Foundations, an advocacy group that gives grants to organizations that promote democracy. The foundations give money to NPR.

PRAY: Because what would result would be a gutting of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, and would all but eviscerate the Department of Justice's ability to adequately enforce the law.

JOHNSON: As for claims Justice is too aggressive, Pray says, there aren't that many cases. And eight of the 10 biggest settlements have come in cases against foreign companies, not American businesses.

Mukasey, the former attorney general and retired federal judge, says that misses the point.

MUKASEY: I don't think it's so much the number of actual enforcement actions, as it is the effect of possible enforcement actions on people's behavior.

JOHNSON: He says companies are spending millions of dollars in legal fees to investigate foreign bribery allegations, even though they may amount to small-potatoes issues such as gifts on a business contact's birthday.

David Kennedy is a law professor at Harvard University. He studied the law for the Open Society Foundations. He says lawmakers back in the '70s had something very clear in mind.

DAVID KENNEDY: The goal of Congress was precisely to avoid the situation where U.S. corporations undermined the stability and credibility of governments abroad.

JOHNSON: Kennedy and other supporters of the bribery law say the United Kingdom, Germany, and other European allies are all stepping up their enforcement. And now, they say, is no time for the U.S. to step back.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington.

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