04/03/2013 07:02 am ET | Updated Jun 03, 2013

To Pay Or Not To Pay

A minor corruption scandal broke out in Thailand earlier this year and then went viral on Twitter.

British expat Richard Barrow, who lives and works in Thailand, needed to extend his Thai work permit. To extend the permit he needed a tax certificate from the Thai tax people saying he'd paid his taxes. Which he had.

At the tax office, the Thai tax official allegedly demanded a payment of 1,000 Thai baht, or about $35. Infuriated, Barrrow took the official's picture and tweeted the picture and story. Later the Thai official allegedly backed off and asked for his picture to be taken down. By that time the picture and story had been retweeted 67 times; later the story was retweeted hundreds of times more.

Now Barrow fears the government will circle the wagons, deny the allegations, and refuse to extend his work permit.

Countries often have different attitudes toward these kinds of payments. Let's start with the United States. Astonishing as it may seem, the United States makes laws on the subject not only for the United States but for other countries, too. The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) of 1978, as amended, and as the title implies, specifically makes rules for other countries, not the United States. Apparently some 200 countries around the world fall short on this subject, so the U.S. believes it must chime in.

Staying with the United States for the moment, note that both Barrow and the media referred to the 1,000 baht as a bribe request. But the FCPA for the United States calls this a grease payment, or a facilitating payment.

People make grease payments to get officials to do their jobs -- that is, to do what they're supposed to do anyway. People make bribes to get or to retain business. The FCPA makes bribes illegal but exempts grease payments. While the distinction can often be hard to make, in this case the 1,000 baht seems pretty clearly a grease payment.

Barrow is a U.K. citizen. U.K. law also applies to other countries and covers both grease payments and bribes, failing to make the distinction. In the Twitter feed, a British government official in Thailand tweeted that if Barrow had made the requested payment he'd be violating U.K. law.

Then there's Thai law, whatever it may be, however it may be enforced.

Which brings me to my own view on the subject. I pay little attention to whether U.S., U.K., or other law prohibits grease payments because I don't pay grease payments. I suppose I may have made a minor payment in the past, without my knowing about it. But I've never done this knowingly, not in the nearly three decades I've been spending time, living, and doing business overseas, and, in fact, I've rarely been asked for grease payments either. In most of the stories I've heard about others being asked for these kinds of facilitating payments, it occurs to me that expats and retirees who are asked are too quick to jump. In my experience, you can refuse to pay and still succeed at getting whatever it is you're trying to get. Persistence, not palm greasing, seems the key to me.

On the other hand, I never have and doubt I ever would cause a scene if asked for a payment. I doubt the wisdom of taking a picture of a government official -- probably illegal in itself -- and putting it on the Internet. If some bureaucrat asked me to buy him lunch, or lunch for his staff, I'd simply smile and shake my head.

Barrow says he reacted in anger, never a good idea with public officials anywhere in the world. Now he may lose his work permit; he may even be in big trouble. Without witnesses or corroborating evidence -- after all, a picture proves nothing -- the Thai official can simply deny that he asked for a payment, or say Barrow misunderstood, or blame Barrow for offering the payment, or whatever. All bureaucracies protect their own, and I'd assume that the Thai tax people will protect the official rather than go after him. If anyone gets hurt it'll likely be Barrow.

My advice on the idea of bribes in general is simple: Don't pay them. Ever. Even putting the legal, moral, and ethical (if you perceive the idea in those terms) dilemmas aside, there's a practical one that I strongly recommend you remember. Even if you pay the bribe you're asked to pay, there's no guarantee that the guy you bribe will do the thing you've bribed him to do. And, if he doesn't... if, after you've paid the bribe, he changes his tune and refuses to play along... what recourse do you have? You can't go to his boss and say, in effect, "I paid that guy to do something for me that he isn't supposed to do... and he won't do it." You're out the amount of your bribe, and you're out of luck, too. I've seen it happen many times.

My advice on the idea of grease payments, if, as many seem to, you interpret them as something other than a straight "bribe," is, again: Don't pay them. But don't be offended by the suggestion of them either. Treat them as minor matters. And move on.

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