Global bribery has management's blessing: Study

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Bribery is alive and well in the developed world, as competition for contracts remains fierce among large global companies.

And much of the graft paid to win contracts and smooth deal closings has the blessing of corporate management, with CEOs involved in 12 percent of payments, according to a report Tuesday from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The full scope of global bribery is tough to quantify; an unknown number of cases go unreported every year. The OECD study is only a snapshot, drawn from 427 foreign bribery cases that have been prosecuted under the group's 15-year-old Anti-Bribery Convention. Another 390 cases are ongoing, according to the OECD.

About a third of the cases studied by the Paris-based group were reported by the companies involved. More than half of those were uncovered during internal audits or due diligence for a merger or acquisitions. Another 13 percent of bribes were uncovered by police investigations. Only 2 percent were brought to light by whistleblowers.

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The report found that most bribes are paid to officials at state-owned enterprises. Two-thirds of all these payments grease the skids in four industries: oil and mining, construction, transportation and storage, and information and communication. About three-quarters were paid through intermediaries.

Bribery was not concentrated in poor countries; some 43 percent of payments went to officials in developed or highly developed countries. In a separate report in September, the OECD reported on the number of individuals and companies sanctioned in bribery cases. The United States, with the biggest share of exports among parties to the convention, led the list, followed by Germany, Hungary, Korea and Italy.

Nearly three in five bribes were used to win a public contract. Another 12 percent went to cut through customs red tape, and 6 percent were paid to win preferential tax treatment.

Most bribes involved a relatively small amount of the business transaction being negotiated, according to a sample of the cases studied. Roughly half of those bribes amounted to less than 5 percent of the value of the transaction.

But in dollar terms, those payments were substantial. The average transaction value for the smallest payments was $834 million, so even a one percent kickback would run into the millions.

Most of those caught making bribes got off without going to jail: Just 80 people served time in the 427 cases covered in the report. Another 261 individuals and companies and companies were fined a total of $2.25 billion.

By CNBC's John Schoen.