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BAE – U.K. Court to SFO … Not So Fast!

Yesterday’s post concerned the final act in the BAE circus in the U.S. (see here [1]). As promised, today we venture across the Atlantic to the U.K., a country which has played host to many acts in the BAE bribery, yet no bribery circus.

Yesterday, a U.K. High Court prohibited (see here [2]) the Serious Fraud Office (“SFO”) “from taking any steps in its prosecution of BAE” “until the determination of the application for permission to apply for judicial review or further order.” For press coverage (see here [3]).

Here is the relevant background.

In mid-February, Corner House Research and Campaign Against Arms Trade, two British non-profits, wrote to Richard Alderman, the Director of the SFO, asking him to revoke the plea bargain agreement it had entered into with BAE. (See here [4] and here [5]).

The groups argue “that the Director of the SFO has acted unlawfully as the guidance under which the Director must operate makes clear that once the decision to prosecute has been taken, the charges agreed in any plea agreement must reflect the seriousness of the offending concerned.”

The letter details the SFO’s statements leading up to its February 5th settlement with BAE as well as SFO guidance “specifically designed to apply to plea discussions of the type engaged in by the SFO with BAE” and argues that the SFO’s decision to resolve the BAE matter in the way it did was both “unlawful” and “irrational.”

The SFO guidance relevant to plea negotiations identified in the letter is similar to the factors U.S. prosecutors are to consider in resolving corporate criminal issues pursuant to the Principles of Federal Prosecution of Business Organizations found in the U.S. Attorneys’ Manual (see here [6]).

The SFO refused to reconsider its decision and on February 26th, the groups (see here [7]) “lodged papers at the High Court asking for an injunction (see here [8]) to delay the [SFO] from seeking court approval for its controversial plea bargain settlement with BAE Systems pending the outcome of a Judicial Review.” The groups also “lodged papers requesting the Judicial Review (see here [9]) at the same time.”

By way of summary, the groups:

“contend that the proposed settlement is unlawful because the SFO did not follow the correct prosecution guidance (including its own guidance) on plea bargain;”

“argue that the agreement does not reflect the seriousness and extent of BAE’s alleged corruption, and does not provide the court with adequate sentencing powers; and

“hold that the SFO unlawfully concluded that the factors weighing against prosecuting BAE on bribery and corruption charges outweighted those in favor of prosecution.”

The groups also requested judicial review of the “SFO’s decision to discontinue its prosecution of [BAE’s agent] Count Alfons-Mensdorff-Pouilly.”

As indicated in a prior post (here [10]), the SFO withdrew its filed criminal charges against BAE’s agent days after criminally charging him (presumably based on evidence that the following did indeed occur) 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.”

The Statement of Facts and Grounds in support of the request for judicial review is substantively similar to the above referenced initial letter in that it details the SFO’s statements leading up to its February 5th settlement as well as the SFO guidance “specifically designed to apply to plea discussions of the type engaged in by the SFO with BAE” and argues that the SFO’s decision to resolve the BAE matter in the way it did was both “unlawful” and “irrational.”

According to this [11] release, “[t]he injunction is in force until the Court has decided whether or not to give permission to Campaign Against Arms Trade and The Corner House to apply for a judicial review of the settlement. It will make this decision by March 20, 2010.”

Clearly the “standing” requirements for challenging an agency action in the U.K. are different than in the U.S. Under U.S. law, mere taxpayer status is generally not enough to challenge an agency action, rather a plaintiff must allege unique, personal injury fairly traceable to the conduct at issue. If anyone is conversant on the U.K. standing rules relevant to the SFO challenge, please consider this an invitation for a guest post.