For all its sordid details, much good came out of the Watergate affair, which forced the resignation of US president Richard Nixon in 1974. The blight of the scandal shocked the US political establishment, which moved swiftly to put its damaged house in order.
However, one of the most important post-Watergate reforms is under threat today, with another embattled, impeached president, Donald Trump, reported to have sought to remove the laws that make it illegal for US companies to bribe foreign officials.
In the post-Watergate era, with the Cold War still going on in earnest, the US was conscious that its international prestige - its primary non-military tool in confronting Soviet communism - had been tarnished by the whole affair, and other scandals that came to light in its wake.
Amid a series of investigations that grew out of the Watergate mess, congressional lawmakers repeatedly encountered instances of large-scale corporate corruption, mostly relating to bribery, by American businesses abroad.
What began as an investigation of illegal political donations in the US by 15 large corporations quickly came to focus on the activities of big companies abroad, most notably United Brands, which was found to have paid $2.5 million to politicians in Honduras in order to secure political favours and preferential treatment.
A subsequent investigation undertaken by the Securities and Exchange Commission found more than 400 companies had made "questionable payments" abroad, totalling over $US300 million, to foreign government officials, politicians and political parties. Such payments ranged from bribery of senior figures to "facilitation payments" to officials to achieve beneficial outcomes.
Prominent among the targets of the probe was the aerospace company Lockheed, which was investigated by the Senate Banking Committee in 1975, and found to be paying bribes in its dealings with Japan, Saudi Arabia, Italy and the Netherlands. Also implicated was the defence contractor Northrop, which admitted to using the "Lockheed model" to secure contracts in Saudi Arabia.
The report of the Senate committee found that while nine different laws appeared to have been broken in paying a bribe abroad, violations had been merely "peripheral", and no existing statute explicitly prohibited an American from paying a bribe overseas. It therefore recommended a new law to explicitly make such conduct illegal, justifying it on the grounds that friendly governments had come under pressure from their own people over American actions, the image of American democracy had been tarnished, confidence in the financial integrity of US corporations had been impaired and the efficient functioning of capital markets had been hampered.
The culmination of this process as part of the trauma and post-Watergate catharsis was the historic legislation passed by the Congress and signed into law by president Jimmy Carter in 1977, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, that for the first time explicitly outlawed bribery of foreign officials and also required companies operating abroad to maintain detailed records of their transactions. The anti-bribery provisions of the legislation make it unlawful for a US person, and certain foreign issuers of securities, to make a payment to a foreign official for the purpose of obtaining or retaining business for or with, or directing business to, any person. Since 1998, in accordance with the anti-bribery convention of the OECD, they also apply to foreign firms and persons who take any act in furtherance of such a corrupt payment while in the United States.
The fallout from events in the US saw the issue of bribery and corruption in international business transactions feature prominently in the news, the shock waves reaching far beyond the United States. The bold move by the Carter administration represented the first occasion on which a government had implemented such provisions, and was the first tentative step taken towards an international approach to anti-corruption.
It's just so unfair that American companies aren't allowed to pay bribes to get business overseas.Donald Trump, according to the authors of 'A Very Stable Genius'
The United Nations Declaration against Corruption and Bribery in International Commercial Transactions was adopted in 1996 and, while not legally binding, it articulated the interest and concern of the international community in the development of measures to combat corruption. This was an important breakthrough and showed that a consensus was possible, looking ahead in its encouragement to countries to step up their anti-corruption efforts, and to criminalise and prosecute corruption and bribery in international commercial transactions.
This was essential groundwork for what was to become the crowning achievement of the protracted effort at the UN - the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC). Here was formal recognition that corruption was a global issue, with the UNCAC preamble stating: "Corruption is no longer a local matter but a transnational phenomenon that affects all societies and economies, making international cooperation to prevent and control it essential." It marked a significant turning point in the global effort to address corruption.
But, according to a new book to be released next week, Donald Trump has been working, so far without success, to have the American law of 1977 repealed.
Washington Post journalists Philip Rucker and Carol D. Leonnig recount in A Very Stable Genius how in the spring of 2017, Trump clashed with then-secretary of state Rex Tillerson when he told him he wanted his help in getting rid of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
"It's just so unfair that American companies aren't allowed to pay bribes to get business overseas," Trump said, according to the book. "We're going to change that."
The President, the authors go on to explain, was frustrated with the law "ostensibly because it restricted his industry buddies or his own company's executives from paying off foreign governments in faraway lands".
The book is based on hundreds of hours of interviews with more than 200 sources, corroborated, when possible, by calendars, diary entries, internal memos and even private video recordings (Trump himself had initially committed to an interview for the book, the authors write, but ultimately declined).
- Dr Norman Abjorensen is the author of Combating Corruption: Implications of the G20 Action Plan for the Asia-Pacific Region (2015).