Husband Sues to Hush Estranged Wife on Rolls-Royce Probe

(Bloomberg) -- When he was questioned as part of a Rolls-Royce Holdings Plc bribery probe in 2014, Bhanu Choudhrie talked to his wife, Simrin, about the case and his feelings. She was by his side for “moral support and comfort” during meetings with lawyers.

Now, as the pair divorce, he’s suing her to prevent her from sharing what he says are confidential details about the probe and his business associates.

Choudhrie, 40, and his father Sudhir, a high-profile donor to the U.K.’s Liberal Democrats political party, were arrested and questioned by the Serious Fraud Office in February 2014, as part of a wide-ranging probe into bribery allegations at the jet-engine maker that spanned three decades and seven jurisdictions. They were released after questioning and haven’t been charged.

The lawsuit against Choudhrie’s estranged wife is a surprising twist related to one of the U.K.’s biggest corruption scandals of recent years. The SFO is looking into allegations that Rolls-Royce illegally used middlemen to conduct deals, and last year the company agreed to pay Britain’s biggest corporate fine in the case.

In a statement, a spokesman for Choudhrie said that he has “never embarked on any kind of illegal activity” and the lawsuit wouldn’t stop Simrin from cooperating with “any lawful authority.”

‘Sharing Confidences’

“Choudhrie’s legal action has been taken to prevent his wife sharing confidences of a personal and commercial nature with third parties,” the spokesman said. “He has made it clear in the legal papers that this in no way prevents her helping any lawful authority with any inquiry whatsoever.”

Simrin’s spokeswoman hasn’t immediately responded to a request to comment. It’s not clear whether she has filed any documents in reply to her husband’s claim.

An SFO spokeswoman declined to comment, as did Rolls-Royce, other than to say it is “continuing to cooperate with the U.K.’s Serious Fraud Office.”

Choudhrie and his father weren’t employees of Rolls-Royce, and the SFO hasn’t released information on how Choudhrie, who is a director of a venture-capital consulting firm, may be connected to the Rolls-Royce case.

Choudhrie’s lawsuit -- filed in London last month -- contains few details about what he told his wife or who he thinks she may talk to. He wants her to agree that she won’t tell anyone what he told her, except her lawyers or if she’s required by law or ordered by a court to do so.

Feelings, Concerns

Choudhrie only told his wife about the case so that she could “understand what he was going through,” and the information he told her was “obviously confidential” because of its nature, he said in court filings dated Sept. 25.

She “knew, or ought to have known” that what he was telling her was “being disclosed to her in confidence,” he said in the filings. There was “no other purpose” in telling her except so that she could support and comfort him.

He told her about “his feelings and concerns relating to the investigation” and about his business dealings, he said.

She filed for divorce in May 2017, and they lived together until that November. They’re part-way through divorce proceedings, the court filings say.

‘Secret Millionaire’

The couple exhibited their wealth when Simrin appeared on the British television series, The Secret Millionaire, in 2011. The show has rich people go undercover in poor communities before they eventually reveal their identity and make surprise donations to good causes.

Described as “one of Britain’s wealthiest women,” she displayed her designer shoes and works by famous artists in their living room. She spent time in Sheffield, northern England, where she was shown making donations to groups including a charity shop and a community center and cooking a meal for herself for the first time.

Bribery Probe

Rolls-Royce agreed in January 2017 to pay about 670 million pounds ($879 million) to resolve U.S. and U.K. investigations into allegations its representatives bribed foreign officials to win business. The British penalty, a payment of 497.25 million pounds plus interest to the SFO, was the country’s biggest corporate fine.

Lawyers for the SFO told a London court last year that the corruption spanned at least half a dozen countries, including Russia and Nigeria, and the conduct dated back to 1989. The type of settlement that Rolls-Royce reached in the U.K., a so-called deferred prosecution agreement, allows a company to avoid prosecution in exchange for full cooperation.

List of Names

Choudhrie says in his court filing that he wants an order directing Simrin to disclose the names of who she’s told the information about his case to and what she’s used it for -- and that he may sue the people she names.

While Simrin told him in a letter dated Sept. 14 that she’s “aware of her duties of confidentiality and will abide by her obligations,” Choudhrie said, she hasn’t agreed to his wording not to “disclose the confidential information to anybody” or use it “for any purpose other than for providing moral support and comfort” to him.

She hasn’t directly confirmed that she hasn’t told anyone, and didn’t say whether she accepts that she’s obliged to keep quiet about “an event in October 2017,” his filings said. It’s “reasonably to be inferred” that she’s told someone or used the information for some other purpose, the document said, without giving details about the October event.

The SFO had previously planned to make charging decisions against former Rolls-Royce officials and employees before its former director, David Green, left office in April, people with knowledge of the case said earlier this year.

The case is Bhanu Choudhrie v. Simrin Choudhrie, High Court of Justice - Business and Property Courts of England and Wales, Case No. BL-2018-002121

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