U.K. Fraud Cops Slammed For Failures in Oil Bribery Case
(Bloomberg) -- The U.K.’s top fraud prosecutor was dealt an embarrassing blow after judges overturned an oil executive’s conviction as part of a sprawling bribery suit that it dedicated years to investigating.
A London appeals court quashed Ziad Akle’s conviction on Friday, in a ruling that criticizes the Serious Fraud Office for its relations with a U.S. fixer and for not disclosing key documents. Akle was found guilty of bribing senior Iraqi public officials to secure lucrative oil projects last year.
The refusal to provide key documents in the case “was a serious failure by the SFO to comply with their duty,” the London judges said in the ruling. “That failure was particularly regrettable given that some of the documents had a clear potential to embarrass the SFO in their prosecution of this case.”
The judges said they didn’t suggest any SFO official “deliberately sought to cover anything up.”
It’s not the first time judges have criticized the SFO’s over its handling of a case. The recent failures are stacking up with pressure building on the prosecutor to make expensive criminal trials stick. Earlier this year, it was dealt a humiliating setback after its trial against two former Serco Group Plc directors fell apart because it failed to disclose evidence.
“This case became about the conduct of the SFO. By acting in the way it did it undermined the whole justice system,” Akle’s lawyer, Jo Dimmock, said in a statement. “The combined experience of this legal team, counsel and solicitors, has never seen anything like it.”
The ruling comes after lawyers for Akle argued that the SFO acted inappropriately and may have broken the law over its relationship with the fixer who was working for the Ahsani family, which owned Unaoil -- the Monaco-based oil and gas consultancy at the center of the bribery case.
Akle’s lawyers accused the SFO’s top managers of encouraging the fixer to convince him and another suspect to plead guilty, while trying to secure a lenient deal for his clients.
The judges on Friday described the prosecutor’s dealings with the fixer as “wholly inappropriate.”
He “was the last person whom the SFO should have allowed, or caused, to undertake the role of trying to persuade” the suspects “to plead guilty -- and thereby to benefit the Ahsanis in their dealings with the SFO,” the judges said.
The SFO said in a statement that it was reviewing the ruling and remains committed to a review its interactions with the fixer, which it announced last year.
Last year, a different London judge lambasted the relationship, but ultimately ruled it didn’t amount to an abuse of process.
“This judgment sends a clear message – the SFO can no longer engage in back room deals,” Dimmock said. “There is no room in this jurisdiction for justice by fixer.”
Jeremy Summers, head of business crime at Osborne Clarke who wasn’t involved in the case said the SFO’s disclosure failures are “serious enough” in its own right, but that’s “compounded here by the underlying position of inappropriate contact between the SFO, including its Director, and an American fixer.”
“This may well result in increased scrutiny of the SFO and further questions about its long term future,” he said.
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