The SFO said it did not find sufficient evidence to bring charges against the tobacco company © REUTERS

The UK Serious Fraud Office has closed its investigation into corruption at British American Tobacco after finding insufficient evidence to bring charges against the tobacco company, its subsidiaries or related individuals. 

The agency began investigating the cigarette group in 2017 after claims it had bribed officials in east Africa to undermine anti-smoking laws. In February 2016 BAT said it had hired lawyers to investigate those allegations, in the wake of revelations from a whistleblower.

The SFO said on Friday that the evidence gathered “did not meet the evidential test for prosecution as defined in the Code for Crown Prosecutors”. To bring charges the anti-graft agency must uncover proof that supports a realistic chance of conviction and the prosecution must be in the public interest for it to pursue a case.

Shares in BAT rose 3.3 per cent in early trading.

The claims against BAT first surfaced in a BBC Panorama programme in 2015, when former employee Paul Hopkins said he had been paying bribes to gain a foothold in the fast-growing east African market. He had worked for BAT in Kenya for 13 years.

The SFO’s decision to drop the case echoes difficulties it has faced in other cross-border probes. In 2019 director Lisa Osofsky closed its investigations into GlaxoSmithKline and individuals associated with Rolls-Royce after concluding neither met the test for prosecutors.

The move was seen as an attempt to clear house following her appointment to the role. However it was met with surprise due to the long-running nature of the cases and the fact that Rolls-Royce had in 2017 signed a £671m plea bargain with UK, US and Brazilian authorities to settle allegations of bribery and corruption.

It underlined the challenges faced by the agency in securing convictions against companies and bringing prosecutions against executives for financial crime.

However, the SFO has recently won successes, including a guilty plea from former Petrofac executive David Lufkin on Thursday. The British national pleaded guilty to three further counts of bribery relating to payments to win about $3.3bn in contracts in the United Arab Emirates between 2012 and 2018. 

Mr Lufkin, who was previously Petrofac’s global head of sales, had already pleaded guilty to 11 bribery charges in 2019 covering millions of dollars worth of payments to agents to secure work.

The investigation was linked to the SFO’s sprawling probe into oil and gas consultancy Unaoil, which has so far resulted in three convictions. But it has also created a scandal for the agency over high-level contact it had with a freelance Miami-based investigator while his clients were under investigation for alleged corruption.

The agency has been more successful in securing plea bargains with companies, including a record-breaking €3.6bn deferred prosecution agreement with Airbus following a three-way investigation with France and the US last year. 

BAT said on Friday it was “pleased that the SFO has closed its investigation and that the SFO is taking no further action in respect of this matter. BAT remains committed to the highest standards in the conduct of its business.”

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