By Joel Schectman
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department will extend greater leniency to companies that voluntarily alert authorities when they learn employees have paid bribes to foreign officials, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein said on Wednesday.
The new guidelines will allow most companies to avoid prosecution altogether if they fully disclose foreign bribery, cooperate in the investigation and take steps to avoid future misconduct, Rosenstein said at a Maryland legal conference.
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This will prompt greater corporate cooperation with authorities, he said. "We want corporate officers and board members to better understand the costs and benefits of cooperation."
The changes come at a time when U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has asked prosecutors to take a tougher line against criminals, particularly in drug cases.
The guidelines expand a pilot program, launched in 2016 by the Obama administration, to encourage more companies to come forward when they discover foreign bribery, in exchange for lighter penalties. The U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act makes it a crime for companies to bribe overseas officials to win business.
While the previous program allowed for no prosecution, the new rules offer the "presumption" that charges will be dropped if companies come forward and fully cooperate.
Rosenstein said that because corporate crimes are ultimately committed by people, not firms, companies should not be prosecuted by the same standard. "It makes sense to treat corporations differently than individuals," he said.
In cases when the misconduct is so severe that the Justice Department cannot drop charges, the guidelines will still allow companies that come forward to get a 50 percent reduction of the lowest level of penalty.
But the requirements that companies must meet for prosecutors to drop charges will be "rigorous" and give authorities more ammunition to pursue individual executives involved in the crimes, senior Justice Department officials told reporters on a conference call on Tuesday.
"I don't think it's accurate at all to portray or understand this policy as giving a pass to corporate crime," a U.S. Justice Department official said.
(Reporting by Joel Schectman; Edited by Susan Thomas and Richard Chang)