Third Unaoil bribery offender launches London appeal against conviction

·3-min read
FILE PHOTO: Director of the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) Lisa Osofsky speaks to Reuters in London

By Kirstin Ridley

LONDON (Reuters) - A third man jailed in Britain for bribery over oil deals in Iraq is appealing his conviction after two co-defendants had guilty verdicts quashed in the case prosecuted by the UK Serious Fraud Office (SFO).

A lawyer for Stephen Whiteley, a 66-year-old former manager of Monaco-based energy consultancy Unaoil, said on Monday he believed his client's conviction was unsafe given that London's Court of Appeal had overturned the other two rulings.

In December, the Attorney General ordered a forensic review into SFO failings during the Unaoil case and a third successful appeal could pile more pressure on SFO Director Lisa Osofsky and rekindle a debate about the future of the agency.

The SFO, which combines investigatory and prosecutorial powers, is facing criticism over its handling of some high-profile cases, such as the collapse of a trial of former Serco executives because of failures in disclosure.

"We won't stop fighting serious fraud, bribery and corruption. Our investigation into Unaoil uncovered the payment of $17 million in bribes that were paid to win contracts worth $1.7 billion in Iraq. We are aware of Mr Whiteley's appeal and are considering our next steps," the SFO said in a statement.

Whiteley, sentenced to three years in jail in 2020, was one of three men convicted by jury after a four-year investigation into how Unaoil, once run by the prominent Ahsani family, helped major Western companies win energy projects in the Middle East, Central Asia and Africa over two decades.

But in a major blow to the SFO, the Court of Appeal overturned the convictions of Whiteley's co-defendant Ziad Akle, a one-time Unaoil executive, and that of Paul Bond, a former manager at Dutch energy services firm SBM Offshore.

Senior judges said the SFO had refused to hand documents to the defence that showed "wholly inappropriate" contact between senior SFO officers and a U.S.-based fixer with vested interests, and that this had hindered defence lawyers.

"The quashing of Mr Akle's conviction, and now that of Mr Bond, due to the refusal of the SFO to disclose material to the defence, we believe also makes Mr Whiteley's conviction unsafe," said Sam Healey, a partner at JMW Solicitors, who is representing Whiteley.

Unaoil's former Iraq partner, Basil Al Jarah, is the fourth man jailed in the British part of a global investigation into Unaoil. He was sentenced to three years and four months in jail after pleading guilty in 2019 to bribery offences.

Former Director of Public Prosecutions and High Court judge David Calvert-Smith, appointed by the Attorney General to lead the review into SFO failings, had planned to present his report in late May.

But the Attorney General's office said on Monday there would be a one month delay and that it now hoped to update parliament on the findings and the government's response before July 21.

Lawmakers have periodically called for the SFO to be rolled into a broader crime-fighting force.

(Reporting by Kirstin Ridley; Editing by David Clarke)

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