David Prosser: The strange case of BAE

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The Independent Online

Outlook Confusion reigns at BAE Systems. Despite persistent rumours the defence company had until last night to reach a deal with the Serious Fraud Office over corruption claims, or face possible criminal charges, sources close to BAE insist it knows nothing about any such deadline.

Still, the impasse can't continue indefinitely. If it can't cut a plea-bargain deal with BAE, the SFO will have to decide whether it has the evidence to launch a criminal prosecution against the company.

For now, it is difficult to see how it could be in BAE's interests to plead guilty to allegations it has paid bribes to secure contracts around the world. Doing so might earn it more lenient treatment from the SFO, but could also see it barred from doing business with the US government, one of its most important customers.

Nor will the precedent set by Mabey & Johnson this week offer BAE comfort. It was fined £3.5m after pleading guilty to corruption charges. But despite negotiations with the SFO in the run-up to the culmination of this case, lawyers who specialise in the field say that while there was no certainty of a conviction against the company in the absence of a guilty plea, M&J didn't seem to get much in return for playing ball.

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