The UK’s top bribery law enforcer Richard Alderman wants business to work with him, not against him

Since taking over as director of the UK’s Serious Fraud Office in April, Richard Alderman has wasted no time in setting out his vision for a tougher and more effective bribery law enforcer.

The UK in August netted its very first overseas corruption catch – the finance director of a little-known Danish company, CBRN Team - in a case prepared by the City of London Police's Overseas Anti-Corruption Unit.

Alderman announced in September plans to rejuvenate the Serious Fraud Office by introducing US-style plea-bargaining for overseas corruption cases. He hopes this will persuade firms to disclose problems to investigators. In return, companies could avoid prosecution for paying foreign bribes.

He says: “Corporates are very interested in making this work. They want to draw a line under the past [instances of corruption], draw the lessons, and move on.” Disclosing violations will show that companies are committed to honest business, he says. He hopes it will also help convince the public, and international governments, that the UK is not a soft-touch on bribery.

UK firms were at first hostile to the SFO’s plea-bargaining plans, Alderman says. “Their response was: ‘We do not want to work with you. The last thing we want is the SFO on our doorstep’.” But now companies are realising that in the long run, business stands to gain from rooting out corruption, he says.

Companies that help investigators could avoid prosecution, Alderman says. The SFO is likely to prosecute the individual that paid bribes, rather than the company, he says – provided it thinks the firm has learned its lesson.

This means companies will have to demonstrate they are getting to the bottom of corruption problems – as BAE Systems attempted to do when it commissioned Lord Woolf to review its compliance measures after the SFO dropped its probe into the Al-Yamamah arms deal with Saudi Arabia in December 2006. In July, the House of Lords ruled the SFO was right to drop the investigation on grounds of national interest, overturning an earlier court ruling that its decision was unlawful.

Investigating BAE remains a priority for the SFO: 13 out of 24 investigators in its recently formed overseas corruption unit are probing the arms-maker. Cases cover BAE deals in Tanzania, South Africa, the Czech Republic and Romania. In total, the SFO is investigating 16 overseas corruption cases and three oil-for-food contracts with pre-invasion Iraq.

As the SFO puts resources into overseas corruption investigations, Alderman is confident his plea-bargaining plans will win over companies. He says: “They want to see how we can work together. It will take a while – this is a big culture shift for us. We are feeling our way.”

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