Britain's first deferred prosecution agreement (DPA), a new type of plea deal, was approved by a judge on Monday in a case about bribery of Tanzanian officials by executives of South Africa's Standard Bank.
In the deal with the Serious Fraud Office (SFO), the London-based ICBC Standard Bank admits to failing to prevent bribery in a 2012-2013 transaction in which its Tanzanian unit Stanbic Bank Tanzania raised $600 million for the government.
Standard Bank Plc was the London arm of South Africa's Standard Bank Group and was the firm judged to have failed to prevent the bribery in question at Stanbic Tanzania.
The London unit was acquired earlier this year by China's ICBC, hence its role in the negotiation of this landmark plea deal. Stanbic Tanzania is not owned by ICBC Standard Bank.
Introduced into English law last year, a DPA is a court-approved deal under which a company charged with wrongdoing agrees to various sanctions that can include a fine and additional supervision, in return for legal proceedings being suspended.
The new procedure is seen as a potentially useful tool for British law enforcers to tackle corporate wrongdoing in a jurisdiction where prosecuting companies has proved very costly and complex. It is not available to individuals.
The bank faces penalties of $32.2 million, including a $16.8 million fine to be paid to the SFO, a $6 million fine plus interest of over $1 million to be paid to the government of Tanzania and $8.4 million in disgorgement of profits.In a lengthy statement setting out the details of the case, Edward Garnier, the lawyer acting for the SFO, told the court that Standard Bank Plc, as it then was, had reported itself to the SFO in early 2013 after employees reported suspicions.
High Court judge Brian Leveson approved the DPA shortly thereafter.
Evidence showed that as part of a sovereign note private placement on behalf of the Tanzanian government, two senior executives at Stanbic Tanzania had facilitated the payment of $6 million in bribes to government officials involved in the transaction.
The payments had been presented as fees owed to EGMA, a consultancy firm that in fact played no substantive part in the transaction, and the money had been withdrawn in cash within days of being paid.
Garnier said the cash had not been traced.
He said senior Tanzanian officials were involved and the country's own anti-corruption agency was investigating. The two executives involved were Bashir Awale, then chief executive of Stanbic Tanzania, who was sacked in August 2013 for failing to cooperate with an internal investigation, and senior executive Shose Sinare, who resigned in June 2013 and thus avoided investigation, Garnier said. ICBC Standard Bank is now 60 percent-owned by Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) and 40 percent-owned by South Africa's Standard Bank Group. ICBC played no part in the events that form part of the DPA.
ICBC Standard Bank specialises in global commodities, fixed income, currencies and equities. The firm was originally a wholly owned London subsidiary of South Africa's Standard Bank, which sold a controlling stake to ICBC in February this year.
Lawyers have predicted that the DPA for ICBC Standard Bank would be the first of many, but some anti-corruption campaigners have expressed fears that it would be an easy way out for companies that should face prosecution.
"There has been fairly widespread concern that the U.S.-style plea deals present a way for big companies to simply 'buy their way out of trouble'," said Barry Vitou, partner and head of Global Corporate Crime at law firm Pinsent Masons.
"The bar in the UK will, however, be set much higher. A key difference here is that judges will independently assess DPAs, and will only sign off on them if they are in the interests of justice," he said.