It's been a quiet few months since last we heard of a big U.S. company getting in hot water with the Feds over violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Or as the saying goes: "Quiet . too quiet."

Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice broke the silence with an announcement that it has joined an investigation, already begun by the Securities and Exchange Commission, into as many as 12 cases of DaimlerChrysler (NYSE:DCX) bribing government officials in Africa and Latin America. The SEC's own investigation was first announced late last year, when a Chrysler accountant turned whistleblower after learning that Daimler-Benz, which Chrysler merged with in 1998, maintained about 40 offshore bank accounts used to fund the payment of bribes.

The practice of maintaining such corporate "slush funds" was not only common but also actually condoned in Europe up until 1999. That was the year in which U.S. pressure to crack down on corruption, and level the foreign trade playing field, resulted in passage of a Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials in International Business Transactions among member-states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Prior to the Convention's passage, many European nations actually permitted companies to deduct the cost of bribes paid from their profits, viewing the bribes as just another cost of doing business.

Investors would be well-advised to watch the intersection of these two trends: the hopefully now-defunct one of European institutionalized bribery, and the one that may have begun with this DaimlerChrysler investigation. With Europe taking a, shall we say, less than active interest in prosecuting cases of foreign bribery by its corporations, American regulators may no longer be willing to defer that role.

Early last year, I pointed out how a lot of European stocks were looking mighty cheap in comparison to their American counterparts. But what if there's a risk hiding in those companies' accounting books -- especially the ones trading on U.S. stock exchanges? What if we are seeing a nascent trend of U.S. regulators prosecuting foreign companies for the same acts that got agro-titanMonsanto (NYSE:MON), computing giantIBM (NYSE:IBM), telecom equipment makerLucent (NYSE:LU), lottery operatorGTECH (NYSE:GTK), GE (NYSE:GE) subsidiaryInVision, and defense contractorTitan (NYSE:TTN) in trouble?

If -- and at this point it remains only an "if" -- that trend begins to pick up speed, European investors could be in for some rude surprises.

Read the full story about how the FCPA derailed Titan's buyout by Lockheed in:

GTECH is a Motley Fool Inside Value recommendation.

Fool contributor Rich Smith has no position in any of the companies mentioned in this article.