Wednesday, December 22, 2010

U.K. Judge Reluctantly Accepts The "Loosely and Hastily Drafted" SFO - BAE Plea Agreement

In February 2010, the U.K. Serious Fraud Office ("SFO") and the U.S. DOJ announced resolution of a joint enforcement action against BAE Systems. (See here for the prior post).

Despite years of widespread bribery allegations and despite the DOJ's bribery, yet no bribery allegations (see here), BAE escaped bribery and corruption charges. The U.S. enforcement action came to a formal conclusion in March (see here). As noted in the DOJ release (here) BAE pleaded guilty to "conspiring to defraud the United States by impairing and impeding its lawful functions, to make false statements about its FCPA compliance program, and to violate the Arms Export Control Act and International Traffic in Arms Regulations" and was sentenced to "pay a $400 million criminal fine, one of the largest criminal fines in the history of DOJ's ongoing effort to combat overseas corruption in international business and enforce U.S. export control laws."

The SFO's plea agreement with BAE was even more limited. As noted in this SFO release, the SFO "reached an agreement with BAE Systems that the company will plead guilty" to the offense of "failing to keep reasonably accurate accounting records in relation to its activities in Tanzania." As noted in the SFO release BAE agreed to pay a £30 million penalty "comprising a fine to be determined by the Court with the balance paid as a charitable payment for the benefit of Tanzania."

Days before the SFO-BAE plea agreement, the SFO charged BAE's former agent with "conspiracy to corrupt" and for "conspiring with others to give or agree to give corrupt payments [...] to unknown officials and other agents of certain Eastern and Central European governments, including the Czech Republic, Hungary and Austria as inducements to secure, or as rewards for having secured, contracts from those governments for the supply of goods to them, namely SAAB/Gripen fighter jets, by BAE Systems Plc." However, these charges were quickly withdrawn and the SFO release states that "[t]his decision brings to an end the SFO's investigations into BAE's defence contracts." As discussed in this prior post, the SFO agreed to drop the criminal charges against BAE's former agent because BAE would not agree to the proposed SFO plea (as watered down as it was) without the SFO agreeing to drop the charges against the former agent.

Under no circumstances, it appeared, could BAE (or anyone associated with it) be accused of bribery or corruption. This would have complicated things too greatly for BAE, the world's second largest defense contractor. (See page 15 of the DOJ's sentencing memo - here).

With BAE's U.S. legal exposure in the rear-view mirror, the final act in this circus was approval of the SFO - BAE plea agreement by a U.K. court.

Fast forward to December 20th, the day BAE was supposed to be fined and sentenced.

Enter Mr. Justice David Michael Bean.

As widely reported, Justice Bean, notwithstanding the accounting only charges, wanted to know "whether some of the payments had been channelled corruptly to decision makers in Tanzania." (See here). Justice Bean said "he couldn’t approve the settlement until he knew the intended use of $12.4 million in payments to a local businessman, because Bean said it looked to him as though the money was so he could pay “whatever was necessary to whomever it was necessary” to win the $40 million contract." (See here). Justice Bean suggested the "obvious inference" was that part of the secret payments was used as a "bribe" to win a lucrative contract. (See here).

Prosecutor Victor Temple QC for the SFO said it was not part of his case that any part of the payments at issue was improperly used. David Perry, QC, representing BAE, said the SFO was not alleging bribery or offering evidence of it. He said this was “fundamental to the plea agreement” between the company and the prosecutor to end the corruption probe.

Remember, under no circumstance could BAE be accused of bribery or corruption.

Justice Bean wanted to hear more arguments and postponed BAE's fine and sentence.

The delay was termed (see here) a blow to the SFO and its use of U.S. style plea agreements.

Yesterday, Justice Bean announced his decision.

Justice Bean fined BAE £500,000 for failing to keep proper records of payments it made to an adviser in Tanzania. He also ordered BAE to pay £225,000 in costs.

Because the SFO-BAE plea agreement allowed BAE to deduct the court-ordered fine from the £30m it had offered to the people of Tanzania to settle the case, Justice Bean said he felt pressure to keep the court fine to a minimum. As noted here, Justice Bean stated "the structure of this settlement agreement places moral pressure on the court to keep the fine to a minimum so that the reparation is kept at a maximum."

Justice Bean called the SFO-BAE plea agreement “loosely and hastily drafted” and said the fine he levied reflected that he couldn’t “sentence for an offense which the prosecution failed to charge,” such as conspiracy to corrupt or false accounting. (See here).

See here for Justice Bean's sentencing remarks.

See here for the SFO release.

As noted here, the only money BAE is legally obliged to pay is a £500,000 fine and costs of £250,000 as ordered by Mr Justice Bean. After the sentencing, Richard Alderman, the SFO Director said: “I expect BAE to honour the agreement. I expect the company to pay it [the reparation payment to Tanzania] as quickly as possible.” As noted in the article, such a payment could be problematic.

In a statement (here) BAE stated:

"Today's judgment concludes and draws a line under this historical matter. The company accepts the decision of the Court and will abide by it. In the decade since the conduct referred to in this settlement occurred, the Company has systematically enhanced its compliance policies and processes with a view to ensuring that it is as widely recognised for responsible conduct as it is for high quality services and advanced technologies."

In a statement (see here) Transparency International UK noted that despite Justice Bean's "damning comments, [BAE] has not admitted bribery and no individuals have been punished." Chandrashekhar Krishnan, Executive Director of Transparency International UK stated as follows: "This hearing also highlights the need for a thorough review of sentencing law and procedures, to ensure that judges presented with agreed settlements are able to sentence on a fully informed and transparent basis. It is clear that BAE Systems has got off lightly. The best that can now happen is that the company demonstrates it has turned a new leaf and is irrevocably committed to clean business."

In an editorial, the Financial Times stated as follows.

"The plea-bargain deal BAE Systems struck earlier this year with the UK’s anti-corruption authority was designed to draw a line under the company’s murky past. This may indeed be the judicial outcome of the deal, which was sanctioned by a court on December 21. But the manner of its achievement leaves a sour taste. Justice has probably not been done; it has certainly not been seen to be done. The Serious Fraud Office has long been accused, with justice, of being toothless. So this newspaper welcomed its decision last year to prosecute BAE for allegedly paying bribes to foreign governments to win contracts in several African and eastern European countries. Although the SFO later switched to pursuing a more limited plea bargain, it was still hoped that this might raise the agency’s profile as a crusader against corporate corruption. This week’s court proceedings, which saw a judge reluctantly accept the SFO’s deal, have undermined that hope. British courts bridle at plea bargains because of the way they fetter judicial discretion. But even allowing for this aversion, the BAE deal rightly stuck in the judge’s craw. The company did not admit to any corruption, pleading guilty only to a trivial charge of keeping inadequate accounting records. In return, BAE and its officers were extraordinarily given blanket immunity from any offences before 2004 – whether admitted to or not. A cap was placed on the total amount BAE would pay to settle the litigation – whether as a fine or in compensation. There is nothing wrong with using plea bargains to settle complex cases, but these must satisfy the requirements of justice. This means that defendants in such cases must own up to what they have done wrong. Immunity should be offered sparingly, with prosecutors reserving the right to single out officers for prosecution even if a settlement is reached with the company. The best way to change corporate conduct is to put individuals in the firing line. Fines must fit the crime and not be arbitrarily capped. The UK is trying to get its act together. But it is still some way from – to quote a minister in the last government – “giving the Americans a run for their money”. There are grounds for hope. Britain has passed a bribery bill that would make it easier to prosecute cases such as the BAE one. The government is planning to replace the SFO with a new economic crime agency – hopefully with real teeth. On the evidence of the BAE case, these initiatives are needed."

*****

Hope is a fitting word to end the BAE circus.

Hope that a case of this magnitude is never again resolved the way it was resolved both in the U.S. and the U.K.

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