Ex-insurance boss jailed over bribes for contracts

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The former chief executive of the insurance group PWS was sent to prison for 21 months yesterday after he admitted paying bribes to win foreign contracts for the company.

Julian Messent, 50, admitted that he signed off 41 illegal handouts totalling £2.1m to government officials in Costa Rica between February 1999 and June 2002 in order to retain reinsurance contracts relating to the country's state-owned telecoms, insurance and electricity companies.

The money was funnelled to bank accounts in Panama and Miami and also to officials' wives, Southwark Crown Court heard.

Judge Geoffrey Rivlin, handing down the sentence yesterday, said that the scale of the crimes could have put Messent behind bars for as much as five years. "It is plain, Mr Messent, that you were deeply involved in the decision-making and the process of these crimes," the judge said. "You orchestrated them."

But the sentence was reduced to two counts of 21 months, to run concurrently, because of the defendant's co-operation and guilty plea. Given good behaviour, Messent could be out in as little as 11 months.

Messent, who became PWS's chief executive in 2003, authorised the corrupt payments while he was the director of the company's Latin America arm and his pay was directly linked to his division's sales. Retention of the contracts netted Messent £265,000, the court heard. "The more brokerage which you generated and the less you had to pay out in commission, the greater the division's profitability and your own bonus," Judge Rivlin added. Alongside the custodial sentence, Messent – who resigned from PWS in 2006 – is banned from serving as a company director for five years and must pay a £100,000 fine to the Costa Rican government within 21 days. "The corrupt sums which you authorised represent a loss to the Republic of Costa Rica," Judge Rivlin told Messent.

Although the judge acknowledged that Messent was not the only person involved in making the illegal payments, the Serious Fraud Office (SFO), which brought the case, is not pursuing anyone else in connection with the offences.

The SFO, which has not filed any charges against PWS, applauded the outcome of the trial yesterday.

"This case shows how determined we are to pursue businessmen who bribe," said Richard Alderman, the SFO's director.