On February 19, 2016, the UK Serious Fraud Office (SFO) convicted Sweett Group plc (Sweett), a London-based construction and professional services company, under Section 7 of the UK Bribery Act. This is the first conviction under Section 7, which requires companies to prevent bribery in the course of business, and the penalty imposed against Sweett – the company had to pay a total of GBP 2.25 million – was minimal in the context of penalties paid under the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). Yet this action provides further evidence that the SFO may really be able to meaningfully enforce the Bribery Act.
Under Section 7 of the Bribery Act, a company can be found liable if it – or any associated person, subsidiary or entity, anywhere in the world – engages in bribery with the intention of obtaining or retaining business or some sort of commercial advantage. Liability can be established even if company management does not authorize or encourage, and is not even aware of, the illicit conduct. (While a company will have a full defense if it can show that it maintained adequate procedures to prevent bribery, as appears evident from the resolution in this matter, Sweett was unable to present such a defense.)
According to news reports, the SFO began investigating Sweett, which is listed on the Alternative Investment Market (or AIM) in London, in July 2014. Through its investigation, the SFO found that a Sweett subsidiary in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Cyril Sweett International Limited (Cyril), had made corrupt payments to the Vice Chairman of Al Ain Ahlia Insurance Company (AAAI) to help secure a contract to build a hotel in Abu Dhabi. After pleading guilty in December 2015, Sweett was ordered to pay a GBP 1.4 million fine, a GBP 851,152 confiscation amount and GBP 95,000 in SFO prosecution costs.
The SFO reportedly is continuing its investigation of individuals involved in the scheme.
Lessons Learned. We derive several interesting lessons from this action.