Friday, October 23, 2020

Serious Fraud Office faces questions over decision to drop bribery investigation

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The Serious Fraud Office is facing questions over its decision to drop an investigation into a trio of executives accused of paying multimillion-pound bribes in the energy industry.

On Tuesday, it was revealed that the SFO had terminated its investigation into the three businessmen, who formerly owned and controlled the consultancy firm Unaoil. The SFO declined to say why.

However, within hours it was announced that the oil and gas services multinational TechnipFMC had admitted paying bribes to Iraqi officials through Unaoil. The admission was made to prosecutors in the US Department of Justice who had been investigating the payments.

TechnipFMC, a multinational formed two years ago through a merger of the US company FMC Technologies and French company Technip, admitted its predecessor firms had both engaged in separate bribery schemes to land contracts in Iraq and Brazil respectively.

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The admission has forced TechnipFMC to pay $296m (£233m) in criminal fines to end the US Department of Justice investigation into the two bribery schemes.

The admission by TechnipFMC raises further questions about the SFO’s decision to drop an investigation into the family behind the Monaco-based firm Unaoil.

Sue Hawley, the policy director of Corruption Watch, said: “The SFO needs to make a statement about what’s going on in its Unaoil inquiry. This is a crucial case which cuts to the willingness and ability of the UK to investigate and prosecute serious alleged criminality, and if the SFO is not able to do so, we need to know why.”

The SFO had launched an investigation in 2016 into alleged bribery and corruption by Unaoil and its employees following a series of articles by investigative reporters working for Australia’s Fairfax Media.

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Unaoil was owned and controlled by its chairman Ata Ahsani and his sons, Cyrus and Saman, from its headquarters in Monaco before it went into liquidation.

On Tuesday, the compliance industry newsletter Mlex and the Guardian reported that the SFO had dropped its investigation into the involvement of the Ahsanis in alleged large-scale bribery.

The SFO declined to comment or explain why its investigation into the Ahsanis had been dropped. A spokesman said it could not comment as its investigation into Unaoil continues.

Later that day the US Department of Justice announced that TechnipFMC was pleading to guilty to bribing officials in Iraq and Brazil.

The involvement of Unaoil in the scheme to bribe Iraqi officials was disclosed by TechnipFMC in a public announcement.

Documents published by the US authorities detail how TechnipFMC paid bribes to Iraqi officials through what it called a Monaco-based oil and gas services intermediary.

According to the documents, FMC Technologies, one of the predecessor firms, used Unaoil to pay bribes to at least seven Iraqi officials at the oil ministry and two state-owned oil companies from 2008 to 2013.

The bribes were paid to “secure improper business advantages and to influence those foreign officials to obtain and retain business” in Iraq for the predecessor firm, according to the documents.

Unaoil and the Ahsani family declined to comment. Unaoil has consistently denied involvement in bribery, calling the allegations “malicious and damaging”.

TechnipFMC is the second multinational firm to enter into a multimillion-dollar agreement with the US justice department to settle allegations relating to Unaoil. In 2017 it was announced that Rolls-Royce would pay $170m to settle allegations that it paid bribes in a series of countries, including some through Unaoil.

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