UK probe into communications contract is ‘dead’ and ‘gathering dust’, says SFO insider

By Frederika Whitehead | 25 April 2013

Investigators at the Serious Fraud Office are preparing to drop their investigation into allegations of bribery surrounding a contract to overhaul Saudi Arabia’s military communications.

A key SFO insider told Exaro that the director, David Green, was working out how to manage the politically-sensitive decision to drop the investigation, saying that it had already “been left for dead” and was “gathering dust”.

The move is bound to trigger fresh accusations from the international community that the UK is failing to take bribery in overseas trade seriously.

It would mark the second time that the SFO has dropped an investigation into bribery allegations surrounding huge defence contracts between the UK and Saudi Arabia.

In 2006, the UK halted an investigation into alleged bribery by BAE Systems to secure sales of military jets to Saudi Arabia under ‘Al Yamamah’. BAE denied wrongdoing.

GPT Special Project Management, a UK subsidiary of EADS, the European defence group, is overhauling the Saudi national guard’s communications systems under the ‘Sangcom project’. Exaro revealed last May how GPT transferred more than £14.5 million to two mysterious offshore companies as part of the deal.

Following a series of disclosures by Exaro, the SFO last August mounted a full criminal investigation into the ‘Sangcom project’. GPT denies wrongdoing.

The UK’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) oversees the Sangcom project – as well as Al Yamamah.

The SFO insider said that Green was not willing to challenge the MoD by pursuing the case.

This was illustrated, according to the source, by the rowing back by the SFO from plans to interview the head of the National Audit Office, Amyas Morse, as a witness. SFO investigators believed that his previous role as a senior MoD official gave him some oversight on the Sangcom project.

The source pointed out that the SFO had been notably inactive in its investigation into the Sangcom project.

He said: “In this sort of thing, people are interviewed and things come out. There starts to be a bit of a stir about it, but there has not been.”

He continued: “When you have a serious investigation – an active investigation – going on, the company is usually putting out a Press line, helping people, doing things, it has some sort of strategy.”

“The company has not said anything. There has been total silence for more than six months. I just think that the investigation has been left for dead.”

He hoped that Green would change his mind about dropping the case. Otherwise, he warned, it would lead to the SFO’s demise.

The SFO has also lost two joint heads of its ‘bribery and corruption’ division, including Patrick Rappo, who was identified in a leaked letter obtained by Exaro as managing the preliminary stage of the investigation into the Sangcom project. He left the SFO earlier this month after five years there.

One SFO source said that management of the case passed to another unidentified investigating officer when it was turned to a full criminal investigation last August.

Meanwhile, the other head of the division, Satnam Tumani, left the SFO after 17 years in September.

However, the move to drop the SFO investigation into the Sangcom project is understood to have been made at a more senior level.

Rappo said that his departure was unrelated to the Sangcom case.

Tumani would not say why he left.

Key witnesses in the case say that the SFO has never contacted them.

The Sangcom project’s former programme director, Eddie Fisher, was told by SFO investigators that they did not need to question him.

An SFO spokesman said that the investigation “remains ongoing.”

An EADS spokesman said: “It is not something upon which we can comment because we have not heard anything from the SFO.”

Green’s predecessor as SFO director, Richard Alderman, told Exaro a year ago that the decision to drop the investigation into Al Yamamah tarnished Britain’s reputation around the world.

The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) slammed that decision. It said that the move raised questions about the UK’s commitment to the inter-government body’s anti-bribery convention.

However, the SFO’s actions suggest that it is less worried about further condemnation from the OECD than a clash with the MoD.

Update 3.15pm: The SFO this afternoon announced that it was mounting an investigation into allegations of fraud, bribery and corruption relating to the activities of Eurasian Natural Resources Corp (ENRC) or its subdisiaries in Kazakhstan and Africa.

ENRC acknowledged the development, and said that it was “assisting and co-operating fully with the SFO”.

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