WASHINGTON, July 19, 2011 -- The Justice Department is preparing to launch a preliminary investigation into whether News of the World officials engaged in a systemic conspiracy to pay bribes to British police, ABC News has learned.
If that can be established, department officials will have to determine whether News Corp., the parent company of News of the World, violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) and whether charges should be brought against against the company.
The revelation suggests that the Justice Department's look at News Corp. will reach beyond allegations that News of the World employees hacked the phones of 9/11 victims and their families, which is being investigated by the New York field division of the FBI.
Critical questions involve how many British police officials were involved, how much money was allegedly paid out by News Corp. to bribe them and whether it was a widespread pattern and corporate practice.
Department officials plan to seek the cooperation of British authorities immediately to see what Scotland Yard has turned up.
With the growing scrutiny and concern over the alleged hacking of 9/11 victims, the Justice Department said today that Attorney General Eric Holder may meet with some of the families involved.
Earlier this week, some of the families requested meetings with officials from the Justice Department, FBI and Congressional oversight committees on the issue.
"The Attorney General has met with 9/11 family members on a number of occasions and would welcome the opportunity to meet with them to discuss any concerns they would like to bring to the Department's attention," Justice Department spokesman Matthew Miller said.
The Justice Department has brought bribery charges against major corporations before under the FCPA. But those cases have typically involved bribes on a massive scale.
Daimer AG (aka Mercedes Benz) paid the U.S. government $93 million in fines and penalties last year after the Justice Department pursued allegations it provided millions in bribes to officials in 22 countries.
In 2008, corporate giant Siemens admitted to orchestrating a massive pay-to-play bribery conspiracy involving government officials from Bangladesh and Iraq to Venezuela, and will pay the U.S. government $800 million to settle the charges. The scheme, as laid out in court documents, worked very simply: The German company and its subsidiaries, which produce light bulbs, wind turbines, trains and more, made more than 4,000 payments, totaling $1.4 billion, to government officials around the globe.
Under the FCPA, federal prosecutors do not have to prove that illegal activity occurred within the United States, but only that a company that is publicly traded in the United States engaged in broad crimes overseas.
The planned Justice Department inquiry comes after a number congressional leaders demanded it review whether News Corp. violated the FCPA. Department officials are also reviewing whether the allegations of widespread hacking -- if proven -- constitute a violation of the law.