After facing a barrage of criticism over the last few years following a series of high profile failures, such as the Tchenguiz affair, the SFO appears to have clawed some pride back after the Sustainable AgroEnergy PLC (SAE) convictions at Southwark Crown Court. But has there truly been a turn in its fortunes?
Many believed the SFO, tasked with investigating acts of bribery following the introduction of the Bribery Act 2010, lacked the teeth to deal effectively with such offences. It seemed to lurch from one crisis to another.
The SAE case involved three men who, in the words of the SFO’s David Green, “… preyed on investors, many of whom were duped into investing life savings and pension funds”. The trio were charged with corruption and fraud offences, in addition to offences under the Bribery Act 2010. The convictions were focused on the selling and promotion of SAE investment products based on green biofuel Jatropha tree plantations in Cambodia. The jury found that investors were misled into believing the land where the plantations were apparently located was owned by SAE, resulting in millions of pounds being invested in a fraudulent scheme. Gary West (52), James Whale (38), and Stuart Stone (28), were jailed for 13, nine, and six years respectively.
Whilst there have been previous individual convictions under the Bribery Act spearheaded by the CPS for largely unrelated offences (R. v Munir Patel), this conviction marks the SFO’s first successful prosecution, albeit against individuals, under legislation that came into effect in July 2011 to tackle modern international crime.
Although the convictions show that the SFO can adequately police offences under the Bribery Act, many remain to be convinced, not only because the bribery charges in the SAE case were ancillary to the main fraud allegations but also because the convictions themselves tell us very little about the manner in which the corporate offence will be approached by the SFO and a court, in particular section 7. We are yet to find out how a company’s “adequate procedures” will be tested when there is a bribe by an “associated person”, but the outcome of the SAE case should give small hope that the SFO has taken an important step forward.
For further information, please contact Sophia Purkis, Partner, Fladgate LLP (firstname.lastname@example.org)