In a press release on its website, the Serious Fraud Office (“SFO”) has announced that it has finally brought its first charges under the Bribery Act 2010.
The bribery charges against the three individuals are connected to a wider investigation into a suspected £23 million fraud at Sustainable AgroEnergy plc. The SFO’s investigation is focussed on the promotion and selling of biofuel investment products to UK investors, which took place between April 2011 and February 2012.
Two of the defendants in question are the former Chief Commercial Officer and former Financial Controller of Sustainable AgroEnergy, whilst the third was an independent financial adviser who was associated with the company. Mr West, Mr Stone and Mr Wong have been charged with the offences of making and accepting a financial advantage, contrary to section 1(1) and section 2(1) of the Act. They have yet to enter a plea but will get the opportunity to do so before Westminster Magistrates’ Court on 23 September 2013.
The SFO did not shout from the rooftops the fact that these are the first charges they have brought under the Bribery Act since it came into effect in July 2011. This fact was buried in the footnotes of the press release. Far more attention was focussed on the charges of conspiracy to commit fraud by false representation and conspiracy to furnish information, contrary to section 1 of the Criminal Law Act 1977, which have also been brought against each of the aforementioned individuals and a fourth individual, the former Chief Executive Offier of Sustainable AgroEnergy.
The footnotes also reveal that the SFO “accepted” the case on 21 November 2011. Given the period of time between the acceptance of the case and the charges being brought, this may give some indication of the length of time the SFO will take in investigating matters and seeing if a viable prosecution can be brought.
In an interview last month, Mr Green noted that he was “not going to rush for glory” to secure the first prosecutions under the new anti-bribery regime and that he wanted “the right case at the right time”. It would appear that the SFO have thought long and hard before bringing these charges against Mr West, Mr Stone and Mr Wong, which does not bode well for the individuals concerned. It is clear that the SFO wants to carefully select the right prosecutions to bring in order to clarify the new legislation and they are prepared to take their time in order to build a strong case.
And the first bribery prosecution of a corporate – which is still eagerly awaited – may not be too far away. Mr Green confirmed last month that it had two live investigations into corporates who they suspect to have breached the new anti-bribery laws. What is certain is that the SFO will not announce the charges until it feels certain that it has the corporates in question firmly in its sights.