Anti-corruption bodies fear block on GPT prosecution in repeat of ‘Al Yamamah’ probe

By Frederika Whitehead | 23 September 2014

Ministers ‘must not interfere’ with SFO’s case over Saudi bribesMinisters are being warned against “political interference” in a bribery investigation into a massive UK contract to overhaul military communications in Saudi Arabia.

Transparency International and Corruption Watch fear a repeat of the debacle in 2006 when the UK government pressured the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) to shelve its investigation into alleged bribery by BAE Systems to secure sales of military jets to Saudi Arabia – the deal known as, ‘Al Yamamah’.

Exaro revealed more than two years ago how a UK company, GPT Special Project Management, transferred in excess of £14.5 million to two mysterious offshore companies between 2007 and 2010 as part of the ‘Sangcom project’, the huge contract to renew the Saudi national guard’s communications systems.

Three months later, the SFO mounted a criminal investigation. GPT, like BAE in Al Yamamah, denies wrongdoing.

Susan Hawley, policy director at the London-based Corruption Watch, said: “There must be absolutely no political interference in the GPT case. It is essential that the SFO is allowed to investigate the GPT case to its full conclusion.

“It would be extremely damaging to the UK’s reputation if the attorney general were to intervene in either the investigation or prosecution of GPT.”

Jeremy Wright became attorney general in the cabinet reshuffle in July, and the SFO would need his approval to prosecute in the GPT case. GPT is a subsidiary of the European defence giant, EADS, which was rebranded Airbus Group in January.

Hawley fears that ministers, as in the BAE case, may use the Shawcross convention, under which the attorney general obtains ministerial views on whether a particularly sensitive prosecution could damage the public interest. It dates from 1951, and is named after the then attorney general, Sir Hartley Shawcross.

Lord Goldsmith, as attorney general in 2006, used the Shawcross convention to obtain the views of the then prime minister, Tony Blair, on the BAE investigation.

Blair told Goldsmith that it threatened to disrupt the UK’s relations with Saudi Arabia. He warned that the Saudis would stop sharing intelligence, leading to terrorist attacks on the streets of the UK.

SFO insiders are worried that the government will use the Shawcross convention to drop the GPT case. If so, said one, “People will just think that Saudi Arabia is a no-go area for British prosecutors.”

Robert Barrington, executive director of Transparency International, another anti-corruption body, said: “I share the fear.”

There is already anxiety in Parliament about the possible use of the device again. Sir Menzies Campbell, Liberal Democrat MP and former leader, asked the attorney general earlier this month: “How many Shawcross exercises have been conducted in relation to the SFO’s investigations in the last two years?”

He was told that there had been none.

In July, after months of inactivity on the investigation, the SFO arrested four people who worked for GPT or its parent companies.

Three of the four arrested Airbus employees were named two years ago by Exaro in connection with the case within weeks of the launch of the SFO’s criminal investigation:

  • Jeff Cook, GPT’s former managing director;
  • Malcolm Peto, Cook’s line manager at GPT’s parent company, and retired from the group during the investigation;
  • Laurence Bryant, GPT’s financial officer.

A spokesman for Airbus Group said that he would “not discuss the personal details of our people”.

The SFO’s director, David Green, has the option of trying to settle the case under a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA).

Airbus managers have told GPT staff that a DPA was the most likely outcome.

However, SFO insiders said that the case does not qualify for a DPA because a whistleblower – rather than the company – reported it.

Another option is a civil recovery order, which is for when there is no prospect of a conviction.

Transparency International’s Robert Barrington said: “A DPA would devalue the principle of DPAs if used in this case, and it is hard to see why it would be appropriate to use civil recovery if it is clearly a criminal case.”

In June, Exaro revealed how the brother-in-law of King Abdullah, Mahmoud Fustok, ran a company that skimmed 10 per cent from the contract for the Sangcom project. Abdullah was commander of the Saudi national guard at the time.

Related Stories : Bribery claims, ‘Sangcom’ and ‘Al Yamamah’: Exaro story thread

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