It has been reported that the former Chief Executive of PWS International Limited (PWS), Mr Julian Messent, has admitted to paying “very substantial bribes” to win overseas contracts. Mr Messent, pleaded guilty to funnelling corrupt payments of $1.98m to three officials in Costa Rica’s state insurance company and national electricity and telecoms providers.

Mr Hodge Malek, QC for the Serious Fraud Office, told Southwark Crown Court in London that the bribes were paid in 41 instalments between 1999 and 2002. The covert payments were routed through bank accounts in the names of the wives of two of the Costa Rican officials and through accounts in Panama and the US, and a travel agency in Florida.

Mr David Perry QC, told the court that Mr Messent had not concealed the illicit payments from other staff. He added that the details were known to the heads of the Finance Department and the Compliance Unit, the internal watchdog responsible for monitoring conduct of staff. He also claimed that arrangements for the corrupt payments had been “inherited” by Mr Messent when he became head of the firm’s Latin America department in 1996.

Mr Messent was appointed the firm’s Chief Executive in 2003 and resigned three years later after investigations into payments began.

Mr Malek told Judge Geoffrey Rivlin that the exposure of the bribery was one of the factors in the firm going into administration in 2008. He added that the SFO believed that Mr Messent was the “directing” mind behind the corruption. Mr Messent has been jailed for 21 months and was also ordered to pay £100,000 in compensation to Costa Rica.

Richard Alderman, director of the SFO, stated “this case shows how determined we are to pursue businessmen who bribe. Working with agencies in other countries is a key feature of our approach, which can result in action being taken against both sides of the bribes”. Prosecutors in Costa Rica are preparing to bring a legal action against the alleged recipients of the bribes, and the SFO has been working with local authorities to help them bring the case to court.