U.K. SFO Told Soma No Evidence of Crime Found in Bribe Probe

  • Soma lost August court bid to make SFO end its bribery probe
  • Ruling shows SFO said no ‘realistic prospect of conviction’

The U.K. Serious Fraud Office told Soma Oil & Gas Holdings Ltd. in August it had found "insufficient evidence of criminality" in its probe of possible illegal payments to Somali officials, according to a letter cited in a London court judgment.

The letter from the SFO was referenced in a ruling handed down Wednesday after Soma asked a court to force the agency to end its bribery investigation into the company. The application was refused at a hearing in August. The letter was one of the main reasons Soma said the prosecutor should be made to end the probe.

"I can confirm that based on the information available to us at present, there is currently insufficient evidence of criminality on the part of your client in relation to the ‘capacity building payments’ issue to found any realistic prospect of conviction," the SFO said in its Aug. 16 letter to Soma. "However, as you know, there are other strands to the investigation which are continuing."

The SFO announced it was investigating Soma in August 2015 for 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.

Soma sought a judicial review of the probe from a London court in August, claiming the SFO hadn’t properly weighed its risk of insolvency if the investigation continued. A judicial review allows a court to examine the actions of a public agency. The SFO said at the hearing it couldn’t close the investigation because it was still looking into other strands of the case that came to light in December.

“We welcome this authoritative judgment which reinforces the court’s respect for the independence of investigative authorities," the SFO said in an e-mailed statement. "The court found that none of Soma’s grounds had any real prospect of success. Our investigation into Soma continues.”

Judge Peter Gross said in his ruling that while Soma "had no real prospect of success" that a judicial review would be granted, the court "had some sympathy with the position in which Soma found itself and exhorted the SFO to proceed as expeditiously as possible."

"As far as we are concerned this exonerates our clients of any wrongdoing so far as any original allegations are concerned," Matthew Frankland, a lawyer for some of the directors, said by phone. "We remain completely confident that any further allegations will ultimately be rejected in the same way."

The SFO has faced a number of judicial review challenges in recent years. In 2015 a London court ruled the SFO acted lawfully in refusing to allow three senior GlaxoSmithKline Plc executives to be accompanied in SFO interviews by lawyers representing the company, as part of its probe into the U.K. drugmaker’s commercial practices.

That same year the courts rejected an application by BSG Resources Ltd., the mining company linked to Israeli billionaire Beny Steinmetz, to carry out a judicial review over the SFO’s assistance in a criminal investigation by authorities in Guinea.

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