'Grim day' for UK fraud office as third Unaoil conviction quashed

·2-min read
FILE PHOTO: A sign is displayed in an unmarked Serious Fraud Office vehicle parked outside a building, in Mayfair, central London

By Kirstin Ridley

LONDON (Reuters) -Failings at Britain's Serious Fraud Office (SFO) were in the spotlight on Thursday as a government-ordered review laid bare the agency's missteps in a high-profile bribery case as a London court simultaneously quashed a third criminal conviction.

Former High Court judge David Calvert-Smith, appointed to review the agency after its Unaoil bribery case started unravelling last year, said serious problems at the top of the SFO must never be allowed to reoccur.

Piling fresh pressure on SFO Director Lisa Osofsky, they included a failure to properly record meetings, the use of personal mobile phones, disclosure failures and distrust between senior management and the case team, amplified by the impression that a U.S. fixer had the "seal of approval" from the director.

"There is ... a category of decisions and events that, in hindsight, can be seen to have caused problems which should be clearly managed and not repeated in the future," Calvert-Smith said.

In what was described as a "grim day" for the SFO by Susan Hawley, executive director at pressure group Spotlight on Corruption, a second review into last year's collapse of a trial of former Serco executives over prisoner-tagging contracts after disclosure errors was published simultaneously.

Osofsky said the reviews made a "sobering read".

But she added: "I am determined to ensure these reviews help us to move forward with clarity and confidence."

Attorney General Suella Braverman ordered the review after a London court overturned the first Unaoil conviction last year. Senior judges ruled that disclosure failures and "wholly inappropriate" contact between top SFO officers and an American fixer had rendered the trial unfair.

Braverman said she would closely monitor the SFO and update parliament in November and next February.

Meanwhile, the Court of Appeal on Thursday quashed a third conviction in the Unaoil case, which turned on how oil contracts were secured in post-occupation Iraq.

Aziz Rahman, a senior partner at law firm Rahman Ravelli, said it remained to be seen whether the report's conclusions were damaging enough to lead to structural change at the agency.

(Reporting by Kirstin Ridley Editing by Hugh Lawson and Mark Potter)