Sweett Group plc was the first company to be convicted under the Bribery Act 2010's strict liability "corporate offence." Richard Kingston, its former managing director, has been found guilty and sentenced to prison for the destruction of mobile phones containing information relating to the bribery.

The facts

As Burges Salmon reported in March 2016, Sweett Group plc (now Sweett Group Limited), a construction and professional services firm, was the first company to be convicted of the "corporate offence" under Section 7 of the Bribery Act 2010. The company pleaded guilty to failing to prevent bribery in December 2015 and was fined £2.25 million.

Richard Kingston, Managing Director at Sweett Group plc, was arrested in December 2014 as part of the Serious Fraud Office (SFO)'s investigations into the company’s alleged bribery. In December 2016 he was convicted of the destruction of two mobile telephones containing emails, texts and WhatsApp messages relevant to the SFO investigation.

Mr Kingston was sentenced to 12 months' imprisonment for each of the two counts of destruction, set to run simultaneously. He is also the subject of a separate SFO investigation which remains ongoing.

The law

There are two parts to criminal offences under Section 2 (16) Criminal Justice Act 1987. You will be found guilty if:

  • you know or suspect that the police or SFO are, or are likely to be, carrying out an investigation into serious fraud

and

  • you falsify, conceal, destroy or otherwise dispose of documents which you know or suspect would be relevant to the investigation, or permit anyone else to do the same.

Prosecutions under this section have previously been quite rare, so this case comes as an important reminder for those who become involved in criminal or SFO investigations of the criminal sanctions available for anyone who destroys or hides data which might be relevant to the investigation.

It is also a reminder that mobile phone data, texts and WhatsApp messages will be treated the same way as paper documents and can be just as important to an investigation. The same consideration should be given to deleting business-related data on a phone as it would to shredding business-related documents, particularly if the data is not backed up on any other devices.

The steps to take

It is vital that any business or individual who knows or suspects that they are subject to investigation takes steps to identify and preserve any equipment containing data which may be relevant to the investigation. This can include computers, personal devices such as mobile phones and tablets, or data storage devices such as memory sticks and hard drives.

The SFO encourages all companies to co-operate and assist in investigations by preserving information and making it accessible to them.

If you become aware of a possible investigation, we recommend the following steps:

  • Identify all IT equipment with potentially relevant data, including personal devices
  • Isolate the data that might be relevant
  • Perform an impact assessment of the data and its potential effect on the investigation
  • Take and preserve an image of the whole of digital collections. Any back-up tapes should also be preserved
  • Interrogate the data collected by using search terms to identify what might be relevant to the investigation.