Former Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi turned the fight against corruption on its head when he said in a televised interview (following the arrest of the ex-CEO of an Italian defence company) that “Bribes are a phenomenon that exists and it’s useless to deny the existence of these necessary situations.” He added, “These are not crimes. We’re talking about paying a commission to someone in that country. Why, because those are the rules in that country.”
Paying bribes is a crime not only in Italy, but it is against the law for Italian companies to use cash to grease the wheels of commerce overseas. Italian law makes clear that bribery by executives is illegal and adds that companies should establish anti-corruption systems to be in compliance with the law.
Public officials have a responsibility to not only obey the law, but also speak in support of existing laws, former premiers included.
Italy ratified the OECD Convention on Combatting Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions in December 2000. It requires each signatory country to make foreign bribery a crime. It is a key instrument for curbing the export of corruption globally because the 39 signatory countries are responsible for two-thirds of world exports and three-quarters of foreign investment.
Bribery is against the law for good reasons: it hurts economic fundamentals and disadvantages the most vulnerable. Bribes are used to circumvent procurement rules and avoid laws meant to protect people from all types of misbehaviour, from relaxed regulations on building permits to paying over the odds for military equipment a country doesn’t need.
Transparency International’s Exporting Corruption? Country Enforcement of the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention, Progress Report 2012 expressed some serious doubts about reforms introduced by the Berlusconi government to change the laws regarding statutes of limitations resulting in the dismissal of the majority of foreign bribery cases.
A politicised environment
Talk of bribery as 'business as usual' comes at a time when high-profile scandals are dominating the news in Italy alongside coverage of the upcoming election. Many believe the timing of prosecutions and arrests are political because different political parties stand to lose or benefit from the stories surrounding the companies involved.
Finmeccanica, an aerospace company that is 30 per cent owned by the government, allegedly paid bribes to win contracts in India for helicopters; it denies any wrongdoing. Its CEO, who was defended by Silvio Berlusconi in the TV interview, was arrested this week. Monte dei Paschi di Siena, a bank in Tuscany, has admitted using secret derivatives deals to mask hundreds of millions of euros in losses.
Despite the veneer of cynicism that threatens to overshadow the real issues here, Italians should demand that the rule of law is upheld within the country, irrespective of who perpetrates the crime. The business culture can only change when those at the top endorse change by acting in new ways.
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