The SFO Loses Another Bribery Trial
It is one thing for a law enforcement agency to allege a crime.
It is quite another for a law enforcement agency to prove a crime to someone other than itself.
In legal systems based on the rule of law, the later matters more than the former; however it seems that more attention is paid to the former rather than the later.
In December 2013, the U.K. Serious Fraud Office’s (SFO) case against Victor Dahdaleh on bribery and corruption charges collapsed after the SFO concluded there was no “longer a realistic prospect of conviction.”
Recently the SFO lost another bribery trial when put to its burden of proof.
As stated in this SFO release:
“Three employees of Swift Technical Solutions Ltd were found not guilty at Southwark Crown Court of corruption offences in relation to the tax affairs of a Nigerian subsidiary. The jury was unable to reach a verdict on one count against the third defendant and was discharged. The SFO today indicated in court that it did not intend to seek a retrial on that count and a verdict of not guilty was entered.
The defendants were:
Bharat Sodha (age 51) of Middlesex, the former International Tax Manager
Nidhi Vyas (age 49) of Middlesex, the former Financial Controller
Trevor Bruce (age 46) of Northern Ireland, the former Area Director for Nigeria
Bharat Sodha was acquitted of two counts of conspiracy to make corrupt payments. Nidhi Vyas was acquitted of one count of conspiracy to make corrupt payments on the direction of the judge at the close of the prosecution case and was acquitted by the jury of another similar count. Trevor Bruce was acquitted of one count of conspiracy to make corrupt payments and the jury was unable to reach a verdict on the other.
The prosecution case was that these defendants conspired to make corrupt payments to officials of two Nigerian Boards of Internal Revenue, one in Rivers State and the other in Lagos State. Swift co-operated with the SFO, providing documents and making staff available for interview. It was not charged with any offence.”
Despite the loss, the SFO deserves credit for issuing the above release.
By comparison, when the DOJ loses an FCPA trial, it’s as if it never happened because the normally robust DOJ press office suddenly develops a case of writer’s cramp (see here for the prior post).
SFO Official Gives U.S. Style Speech
Ben Morgan (Joint Head of Bribery and Corruption at the SFO) recently delivered this speech. It was very much a U.S. style speech that encouraged corporates to engage early with the SFO and cooperate. In the speech, Morgan also championed U.K. style DPAs.
Prior to excerpting the speech, a brief comment.
Regarding Morgan’s comment that corporates should “live your corporate values” by submitting to the SFO’s every wishes, corporate leaders on both sides of the Atlantic should reject such self-serving enforcement agency rhetoric that somehow it is immoral or unethical to do the following when faced with an internal potential bribery or corruption issue: thoroughly investigate the issue, promptly implement remedial measures, and effectively revise and enhance compliance policies and procedures – all internally and without disclosing to the enforcement agencies.
Such as response is a perfectly acceptable, legitimate, and legal response to potential bribery and corruption issues in but all the rarest of circumstances.
In pertinent part, Morgan stated as follows.
“Although I am billed in a section entitled “regulator update”, actually the SFO is not a regulator, and I’m not going to tell you how to “remain compliant in an evolving regulatory environment”. The SFO is a prosecutor, and that is not just a semantic distinction, it is a practical one. As our Director has memorably said in the past, “we are not in the business of telling people how not to rob banks”. We are in the business of catching those that do, and holding them to account.
We were created by the Criminal Justice Act 1987 and our statutory remit is to investigate and prosecute the most serious or complex fraud, a concept that includes bribery and corruption. The unusual feature of the SFO is that combination of both investigators and prosecutors under the same roof, something I think is absolutely essential for the work we do. So for any given case we will have a multi-disciplinary team from day one – investigators, accountants, digital forensic experts, lawyers, and other specialists, looking into the case, gathering evidence to understand whether any criminal offences have taken place.
So that is the world we are in – one in which the SFO is investigating precisely what has happened in order to pursue the most appropriate criminal justice outcome if the evidence of an offence is there. It is important to emphasise that if you do find yourself in our world there are a range of possible outcomes and that is why I’d like to explain to you what the SFO is doing at the moment; so that you have a chance, if you want to, to positively influence what happens if something does go wrong.
If there is one message to take away from what I say today it’s this – if you find out about a problem I think it is overwhelmingly in your best interests to engage with us early and to do so fully, honestly and with integrity. Just as you urge those in your business not to treat the compliance process as a passive, box-ticking exercise but rather something that needs substance more than just form, so too engaging with us at the back-end of that process needs substance. If it is worth doing at all, it is worth doing properly.
There are three reasons why I say that I think engaging with us properly is in your interests, and I’ll expand on those in the time I have left. The first is that we will be unimpressed if we find out about a problem from someone other than you, and there is a good chance we will. The second is that when we do find out about it, if the evidence is there we will prosecute those who didn’t tell us about their own wrong-doing, or who did so in an artificial, less-than-frank way. And thirdly – a more positive note- for those who do engage with us properly, there is an opportunity to deal with a problem in something other than a traditionally adversarial way. And while we don’t start from this point, it seems to me this option has the potential to be, by some distance, the most effective commercial outcome for a responsible company wanting to resume honest business quickly.
Taking these three things in turn then – what if the SFO finds out about a problem from someone else? Well, it is more likely than ever that we will so if anyone is thinking that just sitting on something is a sensible strategy they need to reflect on that. In complex business like yours there are just too many people in the know, too many channels through which the truth might surface.
[W]e know the problem is there and we are working with whistle-blowers, disgruntled competitors, domestic partner agencies and international colleagues who share our interest to find out what’s happening. I think the very existence of a conference like this, on this scale, and this well attended, shows we are on the same page in terms of appreciating the inherent risk in the mining sector. There are obviously problems, so I would urge you to come and talk to us about yours before someone else does. It is easy for you to do, but it is just as easy for someone else to do, so be careful assuming you have a head start on us.
My second point is that if you don’t tell us, or you do and don’t engage with us properly, prosecution is a likely outcome. As I said earlier, the SFO is a prosecutor first and foremost and our Director has made it very clear that that is our function. We are not in the business of cosy deals, short-cuts or easy targets. We have the stamina and resources to take on the most demanding cases …
Not only do we have that case load though, but in terms of trial outcomes relating to corruption we have built a good trajectory over the last year – we’ve had our first contested conviction of individuals for overseas corruption (senior managers of Innospec who got custodial sentences), our first contested conviction of a corporate for overseas corruption (Smith & Ouzman, paying bribes into Africa, in relation to election ballot papers, of all things), and our first convictions of individuals under the Bribery Act – and in total the SFO convicted 18 defendants (corporates and individuals) in the last calendar year. If that trajectory continues through our current case load, then common sense tells you that we will soon have convictions of major organisations under the Bribery Act – the kind of work the SFO exists to do, and the public expect us to deliver. So if you try to hide a problem, or engage with us in anything less than a full and frank way, if the evidence is there you can expect to be prosecuted.
So what about that more positive note I mentioned earlier? Well, there is an alternative. If you have a problem somewhere in your network and you are prepared to engage with us honestly then we can have a different relationship. The Deferred Prosecution Agreement regime provides a structure for those wanting to resolve their criminal liability to do so quickly and with a degree of control and certainty largely absent from traditional prosecution. A DPA responds to criminal liability – as I said, no cosy deals – so don’t be under any illusion. In a process scrutinised by a Crown Court judge, criminal proceedings will be commenced against the organisation but immediately suspended pending compliance with the terms of the agreement. Those terms can pack a hefty punch too – a fine, compensation, remedial measures, in some cases a monitor and other possible terms. But it has a lot going for it too – speed and certainty, as I have said; a level of compatibility that enables us to get a bit closer to that hallowed ground of a global resolution for conduct that crosses borders, as I suspect much of the activity in your sector inevitably would; and also the chance to really live your corporate values – integrity around facing up to what’s gone wrong and putting it right rather than being on the back foot, having to be defensive. That’s a much better message for your stakeholders is it not? – employees, customers, shareholders, potential investors, the media, regulators even. You could show that it isn’t just rhetoric: that the ‘tone from the top’ means something in real life in your business, not just on paper. And while it’s not my area of expertise, from attending conferences like this one I always get the impression that the way you talk about compliance and ethics now isn’t about moral high ground, nor about threat even, but actually about adding commercial value. Well if that’s right, I put it to you that genuine engagement with us is the consistent extension of that message; the appropriate and commercial way to fix problems that your well-considered compliance procedures identify.
So those are my three reasons for cooperating with us – if you don’t, we stand a good chance of finding out anyway; anything other than proper cooperation risks prosecution; yet proper cooperation offers the chance to resolve risk sensibly.
The final thing I want to say is a word on proper cooperation. I’ve mentioned a few times how important it is to do things properly if you do choose to engage with us, if you set off down that fork in the road as opposed to electing to be a traditional adversary. And it is really important – it’s what I want you to take away from this. We are no longer, at the SFO, in the world of having to talk up DPAs like some sort of salesmen; corporates want them and some will get them. We have issued our first invitation letters giving corporates the opportunity to enter into DPA negotiations. Where we are now is working with corporates on how best to go through that process – not “why DPA”, but “how DPA”. And when it comes to “how”, the DPA Code is clear; we and the court need you to cooperate fully with our investigation. I and others at the SFO have spoken in some detail about what that looks like so I’m not going to go over that ground extensively again, I will just say this. We have made clear what we expect. It’s all there in the DPA Code. Crucially, where suspicions of corrupt activity arise, we do not require you to carry out internal investigations; investigation is our job. And while we do understand that up to a point you will need to do some work to look into allegations of bribery, we find internal investigations that ‘trample over the crime scene’ to be unhelpful. Our stance is to ask for genuine cooperation with our investigation, not duplication of it. We don’t expect you to keep us in the dark while you carry out extensive private investigations and some months or even years later present us with a package of your findings. If there is suspected criminal conduct, that is our job and there are some important issues around access to, and integrity of, evidence (especially regarding witness accounts) and we expect those to be respected in the same way they would be in any other criminal investigation. We expect you to engage with us early, and to work with us as we investigate, not to rush ahead and, whether intentionally or not, complicate the work we need to do. This is, we appreciate, to some extent a departure from the way things used to be and the way certain practices have built up in other jurisdictions, but we make no apology for that. Our job is to investigate possible criminal offences and we take a very dim view of anything anyone does that makes that job more difficult than it needs to be.
You should know that from where I sit, there appear to be emerging two schools of practice among those advising companies like yours. There are those who seem to view our requests for cooperation as some sort of game, to be instinctively resisted but, I’m sure they would think, cleverly managed nevertheless. They roll out the same stale tactics we have come to know well. And then there are those who seem to actually listen to what we are saying, and take the more innovative approach of genuinely trying to respond to it. It is very clear to me which of those approaches is in the respective companies’ best interests, but until the examples of those who have co-operated filter out across the market I suppose there will continue to be people who want to do things the old way. That’s fine, but you can expect no credit for doing your minimum legal duty. You don’t have to cooperate with us, it is your choice. If you do want to then you have to move beyond that, really make the effort to make our job of investigating a possible crime easier. That is what it takes – not the “impression of cooperation”, saying one thing while really working a more guarded agenda (we know all about that) but actually helping us, being fully frank and honest with us, as little by little, some companies now are.
Remember also that engaging with us doesn’t necessarily mean a criminal sanction at all. We are not looking for scalps. If the evidence is not there then we must conclude that it is not a matter that should be prosecuted. That is an entirely valid and appropriate outcome, and one we are perfectly content to reach. We must be – and will be – fair, and make decisions based on evidence and the public interest alone. So there is that safety-valve built into any engagement you have with us. You can come to us early, before you have gone to the four corners of the earth to form a final view of what has happened, and we can work together to understand what has happened. It could well be the case that having done so, no further action on our part is appropriate – you are not committing yourselves to an inevitable sanction, but you are giving yourselves the best shot at a controlled outcome if it turns out there is criminal conduct that needs to be resolved.”