Senator says U.S. hasn't always led by example on graft

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. senator acknowledged on Tuesday that the United States had not always led by example in fighting corruption in recent years but said that tackling graft worldwide was absolutely essential.

“Building the capacity to address corruption worldwide is both a daunting challenge and an absolute imperative, and we must be united and unequivocal in our response,” Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democratwho chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, told more than 240 corruption fighters from 134 countries at the World Bank.

“For influential countries like the United States, that means first and foremost leading by example, which we have not always done in recent years,” he said.

Leahy, a former prosecutor, called for a united global front to tackling corruption, saying for donor countries, like the United States, corruption and mismanagement of aid money in developing countries had become a major concern.

“It is an endemic problem that touches every country in the world, which we must face head on, together,” he said.

Leahy said the global financial crisis had exposed serious weaknesses in the world’s leading economies and tackling widespread, systemic corruption was among the biggest challenges to strengthen economies.

“Leading by example and cracking down on corruption and fraud at home is essential, but it is not the full extent of our obligation,” Leahy said. “It is vital that American companies not participate in corruption abroad.”

He said he supported the U.S. “Foreign Corrupt Practices Act” which makes it a crime for Americans and U.S. firms to engage in bribery abroad.

His comments came as Nigeria’s anti-corruption agency filed charges against former U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney and the head of oil services giant Halliburton Co over an alleged scheme to bribe Nigerian officials in a case dating back to the mid-1990s.

As more nations crack down on corrupt practices by their companies operating abroad, such steps could change the culture in countries that have long tolerated corruption, Leahy said.

“When clean government becomes a necessity for international investment, those countries desperately seeking business investment will begin to prioritize curtailing corruption.”

He applauded recent U.S. legislation that requires U.S.-listed companies involved in oil and mineral extraction abroad to disclose payments they make to foreign governments.

“But it is not easy, and we are not always successful,” said Leahy “One need only look at Afghanistan today, where corruption is rampant, there are frequent reports of pilfering of international aid by public officials and their friends and families, and where the United States has compelling national security interests,” he said.

Leahy also pointed to abuses in Iraq by corrupt American security contractors and Iraqi officials.

Editing by Chris Wilson