New Law Could Empower U.S. to Prosecute Foreign Gov’t Officials for Corruption

Transparency International

On the heels of a wave of new sanctions designations against three senior Liberian government officials, the United States Congress on Thursday, December 14, approved an act that would make it a crime for a senior official of a foreign government to demand or accept a bribe from an American citizen or company. 

The act, if approved by the U.S. Senate, will have retroactive power, affecting both current and former government officials alike. 

Last week, the U.S. Department of State designated sanctions against three senior Liberian government officials — two Senators and a Finance Minister — for corruption, including bribery. 

“Pursuant to Section 7031(c) [of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriations Act, 2023] the United States is publicly designating Tweah, Chie, and Nuquay, for their involvement in significant corruption by abusing their public positions through soliciting, accepting, and offering bribes to manipulate legislative processes and public funding, including legislative reporting and mining sector activity,” the State Department said in a statement announcing the sanctions on December 11. 

Known as the Foreign Extortion Prevention Act (or FEPA), the instrument is part of the annual defense spending bill, known as the National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA. FEPA would make it a crime for a foreign official — including any employee of a foreign government or any current or former senior official of a foreign government’s executive, legislative, judicial, or military branches or any immediate family member or close associate thereof — to demand or accept a bribe from an American or American company, or from any person while in the territory of the United States, in connection with obtaining or retaining business.

Transparency International U.S. (TI US) helped craft the law and led the bipartisan civil society campaign in support of it. Along with TI US, FEPA is supported by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) Action, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), and a broad coalition of civil society organizations that work to promote transparency and accountability in government. FEPA also reflects a commitment made by the Biden Administration to work with Congress to criminalize the “demand side” of foreign bribery. TI US is part of the world’s largest coalition against corruption. In collaboration with national chapters in more than 100 countries, through research, policy development, and advocacy, we are leading the fight to turn our vision of a world free from corruption into reality. In Liberia, TI is represented by the Center for Transparency and Accountability in Liberia (CENTAL). 

“Today the United States Government comes one critical step closer to helping provide real justice for victims of corruption around the world,” said Scott Greytak, Director of Advocacy for TI US, said the following on the passage of FEPA. “FEPA is a landmark, bipartisan law that holds the potential to help root out foreign corruption at its source. It is arguably the most sweeping and consequential foreign bribery law in nearly half a century.

“People living in more than 120 countries face serious corruption problems, according to Transparency International’s annual Corruption Perceptions Index. Many are governed by kleptocracies where corrupt officials routinely steal resources from their citizens with impunity. 

“FEPA has the potential to disrupt these dynamics by empowering the U.S. Government to criminally prosecute any foreign official who demands or accepts a bribe from any American or American company, anywhere in the world,” Greytak said.

Current U.S. law makes it a crime for an American or American company to offer a bribe to a foreign official, yet does nothing to punish a foreign official who demands or accepts such a bribe. And research shows that the vast majority of bribe-demanding foreign officials are never criminally prosecuted by their home governments. When these corrupt officials face little threat of prosecution by either their home governments or the U.S. Government—while U.S. companies face serious criminal liability for their involvement in such schemes—we’re left with incomplete justice. It’s time for the United States to impose a cost on those who would threaten Americans’ safety and livelihood with bribe demands.

The passage of “FEPA would create a powerful new tool for fighting foreign corruption at its source and for protecting Americans and American businesses working abroad,” Greytak added. “We strongly encourage President Biden to sign FEPA into law as soon as possible, and we commend Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, Rep. Joe Wilson, Sen. Thom Tillis, the Helsinki Commission, and their respective staff, for their leadership and dedication to this transformative law.”