To the Congress of the United States:
Certain improper activities abroad undertaken by some American corporations have resulted in an erosion of confidence in the responsibility of many of our important business enterprises. In a more general way, these disclosures tend to destroy confidence in our free enterprise institutions.
With this in view, I established the Task Force on Questionable Corporate Payments Abroad on March 31, 1976, and directed it to undertake a sweeping policy review of approaches to deal with the questionable payments problem. On June 14, after reviewing an interim report of the Task Force, I directed the Task Force to develop, as quickly as possible, a specific legislative initiative calling for a system of reporting and disclosure to deter improper payments.
Today, I am transmitting to the Congress my specific proposal for a Foreign Payments Disclosure Act. This proposal will contribute significantly to the deterrence of future improper practices and to the restoration of confidence in American business standards.
This legislation represents a measured but effective approach to the problem of questionable corporate payments abroad:
--It will help deter improper payments in international commerce by American corporations and their officers.
--It will help reverse the trend toward allegations or assumptions of guilt-by-association impugning the integrity of American business generally.
--It will help deter would-be foreign extorters from seeking improper payments from American businessmen.
--It will allow the United States to set a forceful example to our trading partners and competitors regarding the imperative need to end improper business practices.
--It does not attempt to apply directly United States criminal statutes in foreign states and thus does not promise more than can be enforced.
--Finally, it will help restore the confidence of the American people and our trading partners in the ethical standards of the American business community.
The legislation will require reporting to the Secretary of Commerce of certain classes of payments made by U.S. businesses and their foreign subsidiaries and affiliates in relation to business with foreign governments. The reporting requirement covers a broad range of payments relative to government transactions as well as political contributions and payments made directly to foreign public officials. By requiring reporting of all significant payments, whether proper or improper, made in connection with business with foreign governments, the legislation will avoid the difficult problems of definition and proof that arise in the context of enforcement of legislation that seeks to deal specifically with bribery or extortion abroad.
The Secretary of Commerce will, by regulation, further define the scope of reporting required. Small or routine payments will be excluded, as will certain clearly bona fide payments such as taxes. Reports will include the names of recipients.
Reports will be made available to the Departments of State and Justice as well as to the Internal Revenue Service and the Securities and Exchange Commission. The Department of Justice and the State Department will, in appropriate instances, relay reported information to authorities in foreign jurisdictions to assist them in the enforcement of their own laws.
Reports also will be made available to appropriate congressional committees. All reports would be made available to the public one year from the date of their filing, except in cases where a specific written determination is made by the Secretary of State or the Attorney General that considerations of foreign policy or judicial process dictate against disclosure.
This proposed legislation is intended to complement and supplement existing laws and regulations which can affect questionable corporate payments abroad.
In this regard, I wish to recognize and build upon the fine record of the Securities and Exchange Commission. The Commission already has taken prompt and vigorous action to discover questionable or illegal corporate payments and to require public disclosure of material facts relating to them. Moreover, as the Commission has noted, public disclosure of matters of this kind generally leads to their cessation. In virtually all the cases reported to the Commission, companies discovering payments of this kind have taken effective steps to stop them and to assure that similar payments do not recur in the future.
A principal emphasis of the Commission's activities in this area has been to prompt the private sector to take actions that would restore the integrity of the existing system of corporate governance and accountability. I applaud this approach and expect the Secretary of Commerce to follow the same spirit in administering this new legislation.
However, not all firms engaged in international commerce are regulated under the securities laws and are subject to the disclosure requirements of the Commission. The Commission requires disclosure of payments only when necessary or appropriate for the protection of investors. Further, it has not generally required reporting of the name of a recipient, a requirement which I believe can be an important deterrent to extorters. In addition, the Commission's system of disclosure--focusing as it does primarily on the interests of the investing public-is not designed to respond to some of the broader public policy and foreign policy interests related to the questionable payments problem.
Accordingly, the legislation which I am proposing deals with all U.S. participants in foreign commerce--not just firms subject to Commission regulatory requirements--and it calls for the active involvement of the Secretaries of State and Commerce and the Attorney General in administering a system which addresses the full range of public policy interests inherently involved in the questionable payments problem.
The Secretary of Commerce will take every feasible step to minimize the reporting burdens under this new legislation. The legislation directs the Secretary to consult with other federal agencies to eliminate duplicative reporting. Where appropriate, agencies are authorized to combine reporting and record-keeping in single forms.
In this regard, I also wish to recognize and build upon the Securities and Exchange Commission's acknowledged expertise in financial reporting. Persons subject to the Commission's jurisdiction must maintain books and records that are sufficient to provide data the Commission believes should be disclosed. The requirement that persons subject to SEC jurisdiction maintain adequate books and records is now implicit in existing law; the legislation recommended by the Commission, which the Task Force and I support, would make that requirement explicit. It is contemplated that the Commission will take further steps to assure that companies it regulates maintain adequate systems of internal accounting controls. Thus, it may well be unnecessary for the Secretary of Commerce to impose additional record-keeping requirements on companies regulated by the Commission to enable compliance with the proposed legislation.
We remain mindful that the questionable payments problem is an international problem which cannot be corrected by the United States acting alone. Consequently, we are continuing our efforts to secure an international agreement which will establish a mutually acceptable framework for international cooperation in eliminating improper business practices.
The legislation I am proposing today can contribute in an important way to the restoration of confidence in America's vital business institutions. I urge its prompt consideration and enactment by the Congress.
GERALD R. FORD
The White House,
August 3, 1976.