Bribe Busters

"I took bribes," said Mario Puzo, the author of "The Godfather." And that made it just about unanimous. Every day brings news of bribery in high and low places from Japan and China to India, Britain, the United States, and on and on.

It's obviously none too soon for the International Anti-Corruption Conference next year in Peru. Like the Ban Bribery Now! movement in the US, the conference is one of those efforts to solve problems of bribery that rarely get as much attention as the bribery itself.

Bribery was beyond the pale for "an honorable guy" like Mr. Puzo, he explained in a New York magazine interview. But in the 1950s, as a clerk for the Army, he accepted money offered for favors. "How come a guy like me has sunk so low? Because I needed the money."

A small episode, recalled by the author with a smile when asked if he had ever been driven in the manner his current novel says, "Oh, what a wicked world it is that drives a man to sin." But many say similar things about widespread corruption. If police were paid more, they wouldn't be tempted. If border guards had a living wage they wouldn't expect bribes for official duties.

Such could hardly be pleaded by Roh Tae Woo, former president of South Korea, indicted for reaping $365 million in bribes. Or by the Italian officials caught in tangentopoli due (Bribesville 2).

Whether eking out a humble living or making a lavish lifestyle more so, individuals must reach the point of obeying the law without excuses.

They have new backing from world organizations. Last spring 21 members of the Organization of American States (OAS) signed a convention against foreign bribery. And the council of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) resolved to recommend that member countries end tax deductibility of bribes to foreign public officials.

Bribery tax deductible? It was only 20 years ago that the US ended tax breaks on transactions involving bribery abroad. That legislation came after bribery scandals caused William Simon, then Treasury secretary, to counter company alibis that bribery was the way to do business abroad. He said the "great majority" of US businesses did not resort to bribery.

This fall the head of the World Bank said it would cancel projects where evidence of corruption is found. And the head of the International Monetary Fund said it would be a duty of fund officials to press for anticorruption reforms in countries seeking loans.

Back in the USA, alas, some in Congress have already tried to weaken lobbying disclosure legislation passed last year. But the new measure itself was a tribute to all those working under the slogan Ban Bribery Now!

The notion that people in less developed countries are less concerned about bribery in high places is challenged by the Coalition Against Corruption in International Business Transactions. It finds that many see such corruption as a part, not of their own cultures, but of the culture of Northern countries when it comes to promoting business abroad.

Headquartered in Berlin with branches in more than 40 countries, the coalition is known as Transparency International (TI) .It recently announced next year's anticorruption conference, the eighth of its kind.

Such forces for law and ethics may be unsung compared with each scandal-of-the-week. But their number is growing, in the name of both morality and good business.

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