Murdoch's Legal Tab: Approaching $1 Billion

Cultivating a culture of corruption can be expensive. Just ask Rupert Murdoch.

His media behemoth News Corp. has spent nearly $900 million dollars in recent years cleaning up legal messes created by the unethical behavior of his employees. And the legal bills, including out of court settlements, show no signs of abating as trans-Atlantic investigations grind on.

By year's end, News Corp. had already spent $200 million on legal costs trying to deal with and contain the phone-hacking scandal that continues to envelop his British newspaper empire. That sum comes in the wake of News Corp. shelling out nearly $700 million to recently settle three different anti-business lawsuits filed against a Murdoch marketing company in the United States.

Speculation mounts that the phone-hacking scandal could prompt the Department of Justice to prosecute News Corp. for bribing foreign officials in order to gain a competitive advantage and the legal costs surrounding that type of probe could also be enormous. One expert tells Media Matters that Murdoch's company could have to spend another $100 million navigating that investigation; more if the inquiry drags on longer than one year.

What's telling is that the massive legal bills all stem from the fact that Murdoch seems to cultivate a corporate culture where executives don't believe that the rule of law applies to them. The News Corp. culture is one where hacking computers, emails and phones, not to mention bribing politicians with favorable news coverage in exchange for votes in parliament, have been seen as a way of doing business.

In other words, Rupert Murdoch has created a ethical cesspool and now his company has had to spend what's approaching ten figures trying to clean it up. The legal tab though, is still open.

As Reuters reported earlier this month:

The FBI is conducting an investigation into possible criminal violations by Murdoch employees of the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), a law intended to curb payment of bribes by U.S. companies to foreign officials, a U.S. law enforcement official said.

The U.S. official said that if any law enforcement action was pursued by U.S. authorities against Murdoch employees, it would most likely relate to FCPA.

What's the FCPA angle regarding the New York-based News Corp.? Their employees keep getting arrested in Britain for paying off police officials in exchange for tabloid news scoops. Just last week, five senior employees at Murdoch's Sun were arrestedby Scotland Yard on charges of paying officers for non-public information used in sensational news stories; stories used by the newspaper to boost business by selling more copies.

It's true that the tabloid bribery charges do not represent a typical FCPA case. Normally, prosecutions revolve around employees of U.S.-owned companies bribing foreign officials in order to obtain business and contracts, or for slipping past customs agents in order to fulfill orders overseas.

Nonetheless, as Butler University law professor, and FCPA blogger, Mike Koehler wrote, the anti-bribery statute would seem to apply to News Corp.:

As a general matter, the FCPA's anti-bribery provisions prohibit the payment of money or anything of value to a “foreign official” to “obtain or retain business.” London police officers are “foreign officials” under the FCPA. For instance, in this 2006 FCPA enforcement action the DOJ asserted that an Iraqi police officer was a “foreign official” under the FCPA.

And for News Corp., the mere possibility of a FCPA probe could mean staggering legal fees.

Britain's Guardian reported that in response to the looming legal threat, Murdoch's media giant has put together “the most formidable team of FCPA lawyers ever assembled.” And that legal team is not cheap. According to Peter Henning, white collar crime expert and professor of law at Wayne State University, it likely costs Murdoch $50,000 just to assemble that entire team for one hour of legal consolation.

FCPA cases represent “one of the last bastions of unlimited billing by law firms,” Henning explained to Media Matters. The Department of Justice has made it clear that for companies under the FCPA microscope the onus is on them to produce detailed internal investigations into allegations of bribery. The more thorough and transparent the internal investigation, the better the negotiated settlement will often be.

“These type of internal investigations are all hands on deck,” says Henning. “Law firms won't spare any expense and they will bill it all at a top rate.” (Engineering giant Siemens recently spent $1 billion on its internal FCPA probe.)

The truth is, many of Murdoch's recent costly legal woes are not associated with the long-simmering phone hacking scandal. Instead, the biggest financial hits Murdoch has taken for his employees' unethical behavior are tied to News Corp.'s News America Marketing (NAM). In 2009, the firm initiated a startling losing streak against competitors who charged it with dirty tricks, lawbreaking and monopolistic practices.

The greatest hits:

*$125 million: To tiny Insignia Systems (ISIG), which accused NAM of anticompetitive practices.

*$500 million: To Valassis (VCI), which accused NAM of forcing clients to choose its services or face price rises if they gave business to Valassis.

*$29.5 million: To Floorgraphics Inc., which alleged NAM hacked into its computer systems (sound familiar?) to steal competitive information.

And make no mistake, those settlements take big chunks out of the bottom line, even at a company as large and diverse as Murdoch's. Note that in the wake of News Corp.'s $125 million settlement with Insignia, the media giant announced its third quarter profits were down 24 percent from the year's previous third quarter. At the time, a company spokesman conceded that if it hadn't been for the costly Insignia pay-off, News Corp. profits would have been down just five percent.

To date, Murdoch's News Corp. has spent nearly $900 million trying to clean up legal messes spawned by his unethical employees, and the law firm billings continue. At least the lawyers are happy.