The UK’s Serious Fraud Office has closed its investigation into Swiss-Swedish conglomerate ABB after finding insufficient evidence to bring charges, in the latest case the agency has cleared from its backlog.
The SFO opened an investigation into ABB in February 2017 for alleged bribery in relation to its sprawling probe into Monaco-based consultancy Unaoil — one of the first trials to resume before an in-person jury last week following the upheaval from coronavirus.
On Tuesday the agency said it had not gathered sufficient evidence to secure a realistic prospect of conviction, one of the tests it uses when deciding whether to prosecute.
Lawyers said it was a further sign that the SFO was abandoning probes faster than launching new ones.
Last year it opened five investigations but closed double that amount without bringing charges, according to data published by the anti-graft agency in response to a freedom of information request. In 2018 the SFO opened 10 new cases and closed nine.
“The SFO is trying to reduce its backlog. They seem to be working hard to get matters brought to a conclusion, but there is a reduction in the number of new cases coming to light,” said Kyle Phillips, director in corporate and financial crime at law firm Fieldfisher. “The work is going very slowly.”
Lisa Osofsky, who became head of the organisation in 2018, had pledged to take a “drains-up” look at the cases on her books and said she had found some cases that were “going nowhere” in an interview last year. The agency subsequently attracted controversy for dropping high-profile investigations into GlaxoSmithKline and Rolls-Royce last year.
A freedom of information request made by Fieldfisher in 2019 revealed that 32 investigations opened after April 1 2013 were still live out of a total 43.
The SFO’s new investigations have included a criminal probe into Patisserie Holdings after the café chain was plunged into administration last year.
The agency has also secured large penalties from companies through plea deals, including an almost €1bn corporate plea deal with Airbus in January.
It is now bracing for the outcome of its investigation into Unaoil which was among the first jury trials in England and Wales to resume last week with social-distancing measures in place.
The case concerns the alleged involvement of agents and middlemen to secure oil infrastructure contracts in war-torn Iraq using bribes. Three individuals, who deny the charges against them, are on trial.
ABB, which had referred itself to the SFO due to concern over its previous dealings with Unaoil and its subsidiaries, said it had been informed by the agency that it would not criminally pursue the matter further.
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