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U.S. judge approves IBM's foreign bribery case settlement with SEC

By Alina Selyukh

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. judge on Thursday signed off on IBM's 2011 settlement with U.S. regulators over charges of foreign bribery, wrapping up the latest case that questioned U.S. authorities' aggressiveness in investigating corporate misconduct.

U.S. District Judge Richard Leon approved the settlement between International Business Machines Corp and the Securities and Exchange Commission after IBM agreed to a two-year reporting requirement on accounting fraud or bribery as well as federal investigations.

IBM in March 2011 agreed to pay some $10 million to resolve SEC charges over improper gifts to government officials in South Korea and China. The Department of Justice is now investigating allegations of illegal activity by a former IBM employee in Poland as well as transactions in Argentina, Bangladesh an Ukraine, according to IBM's April 30 filing with the SEC.

Leon warned that if any IBM violations land on his desk in the future, he would be stricter in his review.

"If there's a problem in the next two years, obviously it won't be a day like today, it won't be a happy day," Leon told IBM's General Counsel Robert Weber at the court hearing.

IBM neither admitted nor denied the allegations of bribery in South Korea or China, a common feature in SEC settlements.

"When we receive an allegation of wrongdoing, we investigate it and take appropriate action," IBM said in a statement on Thursday while also calling its compliance program "robust" and welcoming Leon's ruling.

In February, Leon scolded IBM for a "history" of violating provisions of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and "major payments" to foreign governments, the latest federal judge to express concerns over U.S. regulators' handling of settlements with corporations during the past two years.

Numerous federal judges have recently asked whether U.S. regulators were aggressive enough in responding to corporate misconduct. The law bars payments to officials of foreign governments in exchange for business and also requires companies to maintain accurate books.

Leon's ruling on Thursday required IBM to annually report to the court and the SEC about its compliance with the foreign corruption laws and immediately notify them if bribery or accounting fraud violations have "reasonably likely" happened.

IBM would also have to report within 60 days of discovering that it is party to any federal investigation, enforcement or civil litigation.

IBM's lawyers at the hearing enumerated steps IBM takes to internally avoid and pursue violation allegations, including a confidential reporting system, and said the company's board of directors has agreed to Leon's reporting requirements.

The case is SEC v. International Business Machines Corp, U.S. District Court, District of Columbia, No. 11-00563.

(Reporting by Alina Selyukh; Editing by Ros Krasny and Ken Wills)

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