A tale of two investigations highlights shortfalls in SFO probe into ‘Sangcom project’
By Frederika Whitehead | 19 April 2013
The Serious Fraud Office (SFO) is charged with combatting corruption by British companies in overseas trade.
The SFO’s credibility was undermined when it abandoned its investigation into the ‘Al Yamamah’ deal in 2006. But it has been given a second bite at the bribery cherry in Saudi Arabia with the ‘Sangcom project’.
Seven years ago, Tony Blair’s Labour government forced the SFO to halt the investigation into alleged bribery by BAE Systems to secure sales of military jets to Saudi Arabia under Al Yamamah. BAE denied wrongdoing.
Richard Alderman, former SFO director, said that the decision forced on his predecessor to drop the investigation tarnished Britain’s reputation around the world.
In the Sangcom project, another British company faces accusations over irregular transfers allegedly paid to help secure a defence deal with Saudi Arabia, this time a massive contract to overhaul its military communications. The contractor, like BAE, denies wrongdoing.
Following a series of disclosures by Exaro, the SFO mounted a full criminal investigation into the Sangcom project.
For decades, executives in Britain’s defence industry saw bribery as “just the way that things are done.” Civil servants at the UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) tended to agree, although they were careful to use words other than “bribes”.
In 1998, the UK ratified the anti-bribery convention of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), which acts as a forum for governments to try to solve common economic and social problems.
The UK duly passed the Bribery Act – 12 years later. Coming into force in 2011, the act was aimed at making the prosecution of corruption easier.
The OECD is, so far, unimpressed. In a report last month, it acknowledged that the UK had “significantly boosted” its “enforcement efforts” against foreign bribery. But it suggested that the “opaque process and low level of information available about settlements” was failing “to instil public and judicial confidence.”
Top of a list of recommendations, the OECD pointedly urged the UK to “maintain the Serious Fraud Office’s role and resources in criminal foreign bribery investigations and prosecutions.”
The SFO’s actions betray Britain’s continuing failure to see bribery in international trade as a serious crime.
“It is just part of their culture,” goes the claim of Saudi Arabia and other countries, especially in the Middle East or Africa.
Until recently, Jimmy Savile was just part of British culture.
Child sex abuse in care homes and other institutions is a crime – like bribery – that Britain had long failed to take seriously enough.
My colleagues working on that investigation are constantly crossing paths with the police on the case. The police plainly are on the case
Detectives are often taking detailed statements from witnesses, even if that is sometimes after Exaro has spoken to them.
As I and others at Exaro have investigated the Sangcom project, we bump into no one. There is practically no sign of the SFO.
Key witnesses tell me that the SFO has never contacted them.
Only last week, we reported that SFO investigators planned to interview the head of the National Audit Office, Amyas Morse, as a witness. They believed that his previous role as a senior MoD official gave him some oversight on the Sangcom project.
However, while Morse was not implicated in any alleged wrongdoing, the SFO rowed back from that move.
One former executive, Eddie Fisher, who wanted to tell the SFO what he had seen and heard while working as the programme director of the Sangcom project, was told by SFO investigators that they did not need to question him.
No need indeed, if there is no real investigation.
He said: “I was very surprised that they did not want to speak to me. I felt that I had useful information that I could have shared with them. Now it is so long ago, and my memory is fading.”
To me, the SFO investigation into the Sangcom project seems a sham.