British firm fined £3.5m for Iraq bribes

Click to follow
The Independent Online

A corrupt British company was fined £3.5 million today for breaching UN sanctions against Iraq and systematically bribing foreign officials with so-called "white man's handshakes".

Mabey & Johnson's "culture" of kickbacks was said to have struck at the very heart of the United Nations' oil-for-food programme designed to make life easier for Saddam Hussein's people.

Their backhanders to the pariah state, combined with those from other companies "all over the world could be used for purposes severely detrimental to the proclaimed interests of the UK and, indeed, the UN", said Judge Geoffrey Rivlin QC.

London's Southwark Crown Court heard that altogether the specialist bridge-building firm - which was also ordered to pay a £1.1 million confiscation order and a prosecution costs contribution of £350,000 - parted with sweeteners totalling £1 million.

That is thought to have helped it harvest contracts worth £60 million.

The court heard that the company first started paying backhanders in Jamaica in 1993.

Later it bribed ministers and others with a specially set up "slush fund" in Ghana.

One official alone received £100,000, effectively doubling his salary, while the son of another - a university student in Britain - was given a £500 cheque.

Finally, the Reading-based company - owned by one of the wealthiest families in Britain - began breaching the oil for food programme.

Its crooked practices came to light when Mabey & Johnson, owned by one of the wealthiest families in Britain, confessed its wrongdoing to the Serious Fraud Office (SFO).

It triggered the first prosecution of its kind in Britain and the first US-style plea bargaining negotiations.

The subsequent investigation showed that it had also paid bribes to "individuals of influence" in Madagascar, Angola, Mozambique and Bangladesh.

In a memo about the last, one of the firm's directors spoke about the need to develop "close personal relationships".

It added: "The use of the 'white man's handshake' is extensive in building trust and confidence before any contract is concluded."

The company admitted two counts of conspiracy to corrupt in Ghana and Jamaica between January 1, 1993, and January 31, 2001.

It also pleaded guilty to "making funds available" - more than £365,000 - to Iraq between May 1, 2001, and November 1, the following year.

Sentencing, the judge said the "unusual case" came to light after five of the company's directors stepped down and the new board decided to "dramatically" turn itself in.

It later handed over "deeply incriminating" documents detailing its bribery and "sanctions-busting".

The bridge-builder, which describes itself as a world leader in its field, therefore deserved "recognition and approval" for its efforts to put matters right.

He said the evidence showed that in Ghana it created a "£750,000 slush fund euphemistically called the Ghana Development Fund.

"Mabey & Johnson knew perfectly well this fund might be used for corrupt purposes."

Altogether, over five years, more than £470,000 was paid in bribes in exchange for contracts worth £26 million.

Among those who received them were the minister and deputy minister of Road and Highways, the acting Minister of Finance and one of his "desk officers".

In Jamaica, nearly £16 million of contracts were obtained in return for backhanders in excess of £105,000.

The judge said the main beneficiary there was Joseph Hibbert, a former civil servant, who ended up the Minister of State for Transport and Works.

The £100,134 he received effectively "doubled his salary over the years".

"He was obviously in an important and influential position when it came to the possible granting of government contracts," he said.

Turning to Mabey & Johnson's sanctions-busting in Iraq, the judge said the company had enjoyed "extensive commercial interests" there until it invaded Kuwait in 1990.

The UN retaliated with a trade embargo, but later relented by easing restrictions with the oil-for-food programme.

"It was undoubtedly to breathe life into the Iraqi connection and business that this offence was committed."

Altogether it paid more than £365,000 to secure a £2.56 million contract.

"Despite the sophistication of the offence, those responsible for it - and it is said to have directly involved one of the company's directors - left a paper trial of incriminating documents, leaving no doubt of the criminality then in being."

The judge said, when the company's "kickback policy" in the Middle East emerged it "seriously mislead a highly reputable firm of solicitors" to cover up its crooked behaviour.

"In my view this corruption and this sanctions-busting, albeit now some time ago, is the much more serious of the offences.

"It strikes at the heart of the Government's policy not to allow the Iraqi government funds which could be used for any purposes other than those set out."

However, he recognised that the company had taken extensive steps to distance itself from its criminal past and ensure there was no repetition.

He therefore wanted to ensure any penalties imposed would not prevent the company "continuing in business and giving employment to very many people and bringing further significant revenue into this country".

The judge said he also noted that Mabey & Johnson had entered into a "binding undertaking" to make reparations to the tune of £1,413,611 to the UN Iraq Fund, as well as to Ghana and Jamaica.