Lawyers, opposition politicians and anti-corruption groups have criticised Suella Braverman, the UK attorney-general, for staying out of an investigation by the Serious Fraud Office into the conduct of its own director despite overseeing the agency.
The SFO announced it would review the behaviour of Lisa Osofsky after it emerged on Monday that a judge had strongly criticised her links to an agent acting for potential suspects in an investigation of alleged corruption in Iraq by employees of Monaco-based oil and gas consultancy Unaoil.
Ms Osofsky, the UK’s most senior anti-corruption prosecutor, responded to “flattering” messages sent to her by a representative for Unaoil’s founders who wanted to secure a favourable outcome for his clients, according to a ruling by Judge Martin Beddoe in February.
The SFO announced the review of Ms Osofsky’s conduct after reporting restrictions were lifted on the conviction of two British businessmen in connection with the Unaoil probe and the judge’s criticism of the SFO director.
On Tuesday, the anti-corruption agency said it would appoint an independent counsel to lead the probe but only after the retrial of Paul Bond, a sales executive at former Unaoil client SBM Offshore whom the jury could not reach a verdict on.
Lawyers reacted with surprise that Ms Braverman, who is also SFO superintendent, had not launched a formal investigation into Ms Osofsky’s conduct. On Tuesday, a spokesperson for Ms Braverman said the attorney-general had “full confidence in the [SFO] director” and would not be engaged in any review into the issue.
Charles Falconer, the shadow attorney-general and a former justice secretary, said the attorney-general should “get to the bottom of this” and “appoint a judge or retired judge to prepare a report for her on the facts and the ramifications”.
“We don’t want the US plea bargaining system to be introduced by the back door,” he added.
Ms Osofsky, an American former FBI lawyer, has sought to adopt greater use of US investigatory tactics, such as turning insiders, since taking over as head of the SFO in 2018.
The SFO sits independently of government but is overseen by the attorney-general. Links between government and the SFO have at times been strained: six years ago, then-home secretary Theresa May tried to abolish the agency.
Michael O’Kane, an investigative lawyer and senior partner at law firm Peters & Peters, agreed that the attorney-general should take a role in the investigation. He said that the probe’s independence was vitally important “given that it will involve an analysis of the apparent poor judgment exercised by the most senior members of the SFO”.
Azizur Rahman, senior partner at law firm Rahman Ravelli said: “The SFO’s superintendent department should ideally be directing the review,” adding that the investigation should be “carried out in a timely way that does not in any way have an impact on any appeals that may be brought or on the retrial”.
Campaign group Spotlight on Corruption said a lack of political interference in any probe could be a positive thing, but only if the agency took the review seriously.
Susan Hawley, executive director at the organisation, said the SFO “look as if they are trying to kick this into the long grass and that is not a good look for an anti-corruption and anti-fraud agency”.
She also expressed surprise that the SFO probe into Ms Osofsky would be delayed until after the retrial of Mr Bond, despite Judge Beddoe recommending this. “The lessons need to be learned and the quicker the SFO get that over and done with, the better,” Ms Hawley said.
The SFO’s sprawling probe into corruption within the Iraqi oil industry resulted in a partial success with the conviction of Ziad Akle, Unaoil’s former Iraq territory manager, and Stephen Whiteley, former vice-president of SBM Offshore and later Unaoil’s Iraq manager.
The SFO said in response to the criticism it was “important that the independent review is conducted at a time at which it will not adversely affect or prejudice ongoing legal proceedings”.
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