Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Frontline's Black Money isn't so much a documentary as a position essay by Lowell Bergman, a lone voice shouting in the media wilderness. The subject is international bribery as conducted by corporations in a world business climate where bribery is a given. The focus is on an American investigation, followed by an international treaty in Paris (The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development) that seeks to curb the practice. But wholesale bribery continues with the added wrinkle that companies now must follow the "11th Commandment": Don't Get Caught.
The problem is that wealthy corporations can hide behind the loopholes of international law and the ability to keep their deals secret. The Siemens Corporation avoided scrutiny in England by moving to Switzerland. Enough money is on tap for an arms corporation to bribe the entire political spectrum of a country like Czechoslovakia or South Africa, to grease the purchase of billions of dollars of weapons they don't need.
The docu outlines a Department of Justice investigation of BAE Systems, a corporation which has profited mightily from Middle East politics. In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher conspired to make secret deals to exchange arms for oil with Saudi Arabia. They performed an end run around normal channels to avoid political complications with Israel. It was an $80 billion secret deal, bartered by Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi ambassador. Huge, unaccounted sums of money were paid out for private purposes in a way that can only be described as bribery.
The show quickly settles into its key case, which is still ongoing. Bribery really only became illegal after Watergate, when large corporations made large, secret cash contributions to Nixon's Committee to RE-Elect the President (CREEP). Nixon used the slush money to finance covert dirty tricks and crimes. International bribery was outlawed by the 1977 Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA).
A Voluntary Disclosure program brought in hundreds of corporations that admitted using bribery to compete overseas. Other companies preferred to take measures to circumvent scrutiny, complaining that the government was making it impossible to do business.
The British newspaper The Guardian enticed an ex- travel agent named Peter Gardiner to come forward; he'd handled "accommodation" services for BAE's Saudi contracts. Performing as a "super duper valet", Gardiner took care of royal girlfriends and chartered jets to transport cars and carry purchases from massive Beverly Hills shopping sprees back to Arabia. Bandar's diplomatic passport helped a lot. BAE paid the multi $million tab for Prince Bandar's daughter's round-the-world honeymoon. Gardiner had kept all of his receipts, providing a wedge that unlocked evidence of more dealings that made what was already known look like "a drop in the bucket".
BAE Systems was making massive bribery payments everywhere on a much larger scale. These include moving $ billions in cash to accounts within the United States, which brought the Department of Justice in on the deal. They discovered that Bandar had his own personal full-sized commercial jet plane. The secret deals moved massive amounts of money between the Virgin Islands, England, Switzerland and Saudi Arabia.
Just as the U.K. investigation was getting somewhere, Prince Bandar had a private meeting with Prime Minister Tony Blair. The British Government shut down the investigation, as a threat to "British-Saudi international cooperation". It is alleged that the Saudis promised all manner of diplomatic trouble if the investigation continued. We're told that Blair's act was in direct defiance of British law.
Black Money's coverage of the chain of events is quite convincing. Correspondent Lowell Bergman interviews key people -- Peter Gardiner, corporate reps, investigators in the U.S., Great Britain and France, investigative reporters and even an ex-FBI agent who now does American public relations for the Saudi Royal Family. Standing next to a grinning George Bush, Tony Blair fields a question about the curtailed investigation by simply saying it was against national interests.
The show brings on England's Lord Timothy Bell, who ridicules the U.K. investigation. Referring to ongoing U.S. inquiries, Bell continues to describes massive amounts of international bribery as "none of our business".
Here in the U.S., the Department of Justice still has 100 cases going. Convictions have been secured against the Halliburton subsidiary KBR for bribes in Nigeria, and against Siemens, which was hit with an 800 million dollar fine. The DOJ has delivered subpoenas to and demanded accounting from BAE Systems for more information on its activities. The investigation continues.
PBS Home Video's Black Money is a great-looking enhanced widescreen production with beautifully shot interviews, illustrated with news video and a sampling of animated maps. It's fascinating from one end to the other. Clips from the movie Syriana are used at one point to illustrate the corporate practice of dodging international bribery laws, and the show makes use of soundtrack music from the feature film too. Sometimes the intrigues and secret operations on hand resemble the fantasy thriller The International, without that film's paranoid, Mabuse- like assassinations. But it is a conspiracy, all right.
The show is almost brand new; it screened on April 7 of this year. The PBS Frontline website offers a show transcript and says it will update the investigation as it proceeds.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Black Money rates:
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: July 7, 2009
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2009 Glenn Erickson
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