Soma Loses U.K. Court Bid to Force SFO to End Bribery Probe

  • Lawyer for Soma says company risks ‘death’ because of probe
  • Prosecutors investigating new claims of ‘serious criminality’

Soma Oil & Gas Holdings Ltd. lost a court bid to force the U.K. Serious Fraud Office to end a bribery investigation into the company despite arguing that the firm may become insolvent if the probe continues.

Lawyers for Soma sought a judicial review of the probe from a London court Wednesday, saying the SFO hadn’t properly weighed the risks to the company’s viability of the investigation continuing. The application was denied because the judges didn’t see any "prospect of success."

The SFO publicly opened an investigation into Soma in August 2015 in relation to possible illegal payments to Somali officials under a capacity-building program with the country’s Petroleum Ministry. Soma, which is headed by former U.K. Conservative Party leader Michael Howard, paid about $700,000 to the Somali government as part of the program that allowed it to explore the region for oil and gas.

The request for a judicial review -- a procedure that allows a court to review the actions of a public agency -- was expedited because the company claims it faces insolvency if it’s unable to enter into a number of contracts by Aug. 25, something it says it can’t do with the SFO investigation still open.

"The company faces an existential threat to its existence in circumstances where it it looks, we would say on all the information available, it will be exonerated," David Perry, a lawyer for Soma, told the court. "There is a risk of death to the company."

The SFO said the probe must continue because it’s still looking into another strand of the investigation beyond the capacity-building program "in respect of serious criminality," which came to light in December, that it cannot disclose details about.

"What is being sought by the claimant is that the court intervenes to terminate a proper, criminal investigation," said Sasha Wass, a lawyer for the agency. "The SFO do not accept that they would be responsible for any loss of contracts."

SFO Raids

The SFO raided Soma’s London offices and the house of Soma’s Chief Financial Officer Philip Wolfe in July 2015, according to court papers. It’s reviewed 50,000 documents, 20,000 e-mails, interviewed three directors as suspects, and questioned five witnesses.

Soma’s involvement in Somalia dovetailed with an increased focus from the U.K. government on the country. Then-British Prime Minister David Cameron told a Somalia conference in London in May 2013 the nation was a foreign policy priority, a month after the company was incorporated and the U.K. reopened its embassy in Mogadishu, Somalia’s capital.

"The directors remain optimistic that the inquiries will, as urged by the court, be conducted expeditiously and concluded in their favor," Matthew Frankland, a lawyer for some of the directors, said in a phone interview.

A spokeswoman for Soma said the company had cooperated fully and openly with the SFO.

“Unfortunately, the delays by the SFO to complete its investigation in a timely manner continue to materially impact Soma’s costs and business opportunities," she said.

The SFO has faced a number of judicial reviews in recent years, most famously in 2012 over search warrants executed in relation to U.K. property tycoons Vincent and Robert Tchenguiz. The court found the SFO made serious mistakes in connection with its application for the warrants in the case.

The prosecutor has had more success since then. In May 2015, a London court ruled the SFO acted lawfully in refusing to allow three senior GlaxoSmithKline Plc to be accompanied in their SFO interviews by lawyers representing the company, as part of its investigation into the U.K. drugmaker’s commercial practices. The decision was seen by defense lawyers as an important precedent for interviews with the agency.

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