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Exclusive: U.S. expanding corporate foreign bribery probes to include hiring

Visitors walk past the Qualcomm stand at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, February 24, 2014. REUTERS/Albert Gea
Visitors walk past the Qualcomm stand at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, February 24, 2014. REUTERS/Albert Gea

By Aruna Viswanatha

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. government agencies that have been probing banks' hiring of children of powerful Chinese officials are expanding existing investigations in other industries across Asia to include hiring practices, four people familiar with the matter said.

The Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission have been asking global companies in a range of industries including oil and gas, telecommunications and consumer products for information about their hiring practices to determine if they could amount to bribery, these people said.

On Wednesday, mobile chipmaker Qualcomm Inc said it could face a civil action from U.S. authorities over alleged bribery of officials associated with state-owned companies in China. It also said it found instances in which "special hiring consideration" was given to people associated with state-owned companies or agencies in China.

Qualcomm declined to comment on Friday. The Justice Department and SEC declined to comment on whether they have expanded their probes.

Some of the new inquiries have zeroed in on hires in China, South Korea and southeast Asia, including Singapore, two of the people familiar with the probes said.

It was not clear how many companies were involved in the expanded probes and the people, who declined to be named because details of the investigations are not public, did not name specific firms.

Hiring issues have become a focus in bribery probes as a matter of course, sources said. That reflects a change in the wake of the investigation into whether JPMorgan hired children of China's state-owned company executives with the express purpose of winning underwriting and other business, they added.

If employees were hired at the direction of an official at a state-run company who was in a position to grant a U.S.-linked company business, the American firm could run afoul of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), a 1970s law that bars bribes to officials of foreign governments, for instance.

"The government is starting to recognize there may be widespread abuse but the misperception that it is not illegal," one source said.

Proving corrupt intent on the part of both the officials and the companies hiring the workers would be difficult, though, defense lawyers predicted.

Charles Duross, who led the Justice Department's FCPA unit until January, when he joined the law firm Morrison & Foerster, said a job offer could constitute a "thing of value" under the law but the challenge would be proving a quid pro quo.

In the wake of the JPMorgan probe, Reuters reported in November the SEC had sent letters to Morgan Stanley and other banks, including Goldman Sachs and Citigroup, seeking information about their hiring practices.

The new inquiries involve employees who were potentially qualified for their jobs, and performed work, as well as "no-show" jobs, where people do not do work for which they are paid, sources said. In the past, few cases by U.S. authorities have dealt with hiring practices that involved real jobs.

A Singapore-based lawyer said that companies across Asia have been reviewing hiring practices as a result of the probe into banks, but the lawyer said he was unaware that anyone was involved yet in a formal investigation.

(Additional reporting by Matthew Miller in Beijing and Rachel Armstrong in Singapore, editing by Caren Bohan and Peter Henderson)

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