06:12, July 23 124 0 theguardian.com

2020-07-23 06:12:03
'We look like fools': UK-US ties threatened by corruption case row

British anti-corruption investigators accused their US counterparts of deceiving them during a row over a criminal inquiry that threatened cooperation between the countries and prompted the UK to complain that “we look like fools”.

The extraordinary dispute is laid bare in a series of confidential exchanges, seen by the Guardian, between senior levels of the UK’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO), which prosecutes large-scale bribery and corruption, and the US Department of Justice.

The correspondence shows how American prosecutors allegedly went behind the backs of their British counterparts to stymie their efforts to bring a key suspect to trial in the UK.

The dispute was particularly sensitive because Jeremy Wright, the UK’s then attorney general, had personally authorised the prosecution of the suspect, Saman Ahsani, who was accused of paying large bribes in an international conspiracy.

The dispute centred on one of the SFO’s largest ever investigations, which began five years ago when investigators started to examine a bribery scandal involving Unaoil, a Monaco-based consultancy. Ahsani was one of three members of the family that controlled Unaoil.

Unaoil was alleged to have paid bribes to officials around the world to secure contracts in the energy industry on behalf of multinational firms, including the British engineering company Rolls-Royce.

The documents show how leading SFO officials believed the Americans had muscled in on their investigation, without their knowledge, and pushed them aside to bring their own prosecution of Ahsani, a leading suspect.

In 2017, Wright, as the attorney general, gave the SFO permission to prosecute Ahsani and others who had been accused of playing a major role in the bribery scheme. His consent was required in such cases.

The SFO issued a warrant to extradite Ahsani from Italy to the UK, so he could be put on trial in London.

However, to the consternation of the SFO, American prosecutors started their own attempt to bring Ahsani to the US to face trial. The prosecutors had – without telling the SFO – held three days of discussions with Ahsani in 2018 to see if he would do a deal to admit his role in the bribery as part of a plea bargain agreement.

On 16 April 2018, Alun Milford, then a senior SFO official, emailed a counterpart in the DoJ to tell her the move “has gone down very badly across our senior management team. People want to know when/if they can trust the DoJ.”

According to Milford, the DoJ had led the SFO to believe that the Americans had only a “watching brief” on the Unaoil allegations – and expected the British to bring prosecutions before them. The SFO had passed a “significant” amount of evidence to the Americans, he added, as the British believed the Americans had given them a clear run at bringing Ahsani to justice.

Milford alleged the Americans were “prepared to go behind the backs of their international partners” and allow suspects to choose where they stood trial in the hope of securing a better outcome. He added: “We look like fools when we say (as we still do) that we have a good, trusting relationship” with the DoJ.

According to Milford, the Americans had asked the SFO to “step back” because, they argued, they had a better chance of convicting Ahsani and persuading him to disclose evidence about others who had been involved in the bribery.

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On 27 April 2018, Matthew Wagstaff, another senior SFO official, told the DoJ that Wright fully supported the SFO in its move to bring Ahsani to the UK. The attorney general was “not willing” to withdraw his approval to prosecute him, he wrote.

Wagstaff warned the Americans their conduct risked causing real harm to relations between the two countries and “causes us to question the extent to which we can trust” the unit within the DoJ which investigates bribery.

Hours later, in what appeared to be a threat from the Americans to suspend cooperation on other investigations, a senior DOJ official replied: “As you figure out what this means for the broader relationship, we will press pause on our other cases so that you can let us know how you want to proceed.”

Wagstaff replied: “You may not have intended it as such but that comes across as a threat to break off relationship with the SFO entirely if we do not submit to your wishes re Saman [Ahsani]. I’d suggest that is neither a reasonable nor a rational response.”

Four minutes later, the senior DoJ official responded: “It was of course not a threat. You are the one who threatened us by saying you need to see how our action in this one case affects our broader relationship and whether you can trust us.”

Wagstaff later told SFO colleagues he had spoken to the senior DOJ official. “His main point was that they were dismayed that we considered their conduct to be a ‘betrayal’ and that I had questioned whether we could trust them, especially given all the cooperation they had offered to date on a range of casework.”

Last year, it was revealed the SFO had dropped its investigation into Ahsani in the UK but was unable to explain why to the public. The SFO’s investigation was ended because Ahsani had been extradited to the US, where he had been charged.

Last year, Ahsani and his brother, Cyrus, pleaded guilty in a Texas court to facilitating the payment of multimillion-dollar bribes to officials in nine countries between 1999 and 2016.

The SFO said it did not “confirm reports of nor comment on specific conversations alleged to have taken place between the SFO and other law enforcement agencies”.

A spokesperson added: “We have a strong and mutually beneficial relationship with our law enforcement partners in the United States and cooperate on a strategic and operational level. This was exemplified in our close cooperation during the investigation into and unprecedented global settlement with Airbus relating to historical corrupt conduct at the company.”

The DoJ said it had a close relationship with the SFO, adding that this successful cooperation was exemplified in prosecutions. It said it had thanked the SFO for its “significant assistance” when the Ahsanis pleaded guilty in the US.

Last week, it emerged the SFO was facing an inquiry after a judge criticised its director, Lisa Osofsky, over “flattering” text messages she received during the Unaoil investigation from a private investigator who was seeking to secure more favourable sentences for his clients.

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