Bribery remains a way of life for many big European and US exporters despite tough laws banning illicit payments to win contracts. Some of the biggest names in the corporate world are known to offer inducements to local officials and government ministers to win business, according to John Christensen of the campaign group Tax Justice Network.
In the last decade the French oil firm Elf Aquitaine and German industrial giant Siemens have faced allegations of corrupt dealings with rival firms and developing-world governments.
Siemens was accused of maintaining a €200m slush fund during the trial of two senior executives for corruption.
Last year, after the executives were found guilty and an internal investigation found €420m (£380m) worth of suspicious payments, it agreed to pay fines of nearly €1bn to US and German authorities.
In 2003, Elf’s former chief executive went on trial with 35 other staff in what became one of the most costly trials in French history. Employees “stole” €300m to fund bribes in Africa, South America, Russia, Spain and Germany. The boss, Loik Le Floch-Prigent, was sentenced to five years in jail while the company’s “Mr Africa” was given four years.
The World Bank has reported the cross-border flow of money from criminal activities, corruption and tax evasion at $1tn to $1.6tn per year, half from developing economies.
Christensen said much of the corruption was sponsored by western companies which used a network of middlemen to disguise commission payments and a wide range of inducements.
“Bribery is more sophisticated. It goes under a variety of names and is channelled through agents based in offshore tax havens,” he said.
Fraud experts in the UK said the belief that Britons “played with a straight bat” was a myth. Simon Bevan, of accountants BDO Stoy Hayward, said fraud was rife in business dealings, with companies using bribes to win contracts and extract confidential information. Bevan, who runs the UK‘s largest anti- fraud unit, said many liked to think it was a feature of business life in southern Europe.
“It goes on in northern Europe and the US. And if you are going to tackle it you have to take on FTSE100 companies and make examples of them. That’s what they have done on the continent and the US and we must follow suit,” he said.
“A significant percentage of manufacturers and service companies find it very hard when they go abroad to avoid joining in the culture of bribery, mainly because they are greedy.
“But is difficult for the authorities to detect. You hope to find a whistleblower and when you do there must be every effort to make an example.”