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EDITIONS
Tuesday, 29 October, 2002, 17:57 GMT
Bribery firm protests its innocence
Katse Dam
Dams exploit Lesotho's one natural resource: Water
The Canadian company at the heart of a bribery scandal in southern Africa has said it will appeal against a $2.2m (1.4m) fine it received on Monday.

Acres International, the construction concern found guilty of bribing the chief executive of a Lesotho dam project, said it was "equally disturbed and dismayed" by the sentence.


What information could they have that was not available to them and could have come from Lesotho? My answer is there is none

Acres spokesman
Acres rejected any suggestion that it might be disbarred from other projects funded by the World Bank.

The Bank said it will examine the evidence presented at the trial for new information, to see whether it would revisit its February decision that none of the 14 Western multinationals accused in the case should be put on its blacklist.

All 14 were contractors on the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, a massive hydroelectric programme being build in the tiny mountain kingdom.

A Bank spokeswoman told BBC News Online that there might be evidence from subpoenas on Acres to which it had not had access.

Open book?

But according to Acres, there is no additional information to be had.

"We offered them everything, access to every record we have," a spokesman told BBC News Online.


(The judge) didn't understand it... He himself admitted he'd never tried a case of this complexity, and he was hell-bent on getting a conviction

Acres spokesman

The Bank, he said, had no need for subpoenas to get information out of the company, but did not push for any extra material.

Of the company's offered material, "they took up none of it," he said.

"What information could they have that was not available to them and could have come from Lesotho? My answer is there is none."

Its appeal against both sentence and conviction needs to be filed by the end of October, unless a delay can be negotiated.

Solo effort

According to Acres, the bribery was entirely the initiative of their in-country representative, hired in 1985 and paid through a handful of Swiss bank accounts.

The representative, Zalisiwonga Bam, died in 1999, but the court heard that he had paid LHWP's former boss, Masupha Sole, 60% of the more than C$680,000 Canadian dollars ($436,000, 444,000 euros) he had received from Acres.

Acres said Mr Bam had acted entirely without its knowledge.

Furthermore, the Swiss bank accounts - which it said the judge had particularly stressed in the trial - were "common practice", given the instability of Lesotho at the time, as was the making of local representative agreements with people like Bam.

During the 1980s the country suffered several coups and was invaded by South Africa, its spokesman said.

'Too complicated'

Acres reserved particular scorn for the judge in the trial, Mahapela Lehohla.

While the World Bank stopped funding the trial in February, the company said, the judge then proceeded to "dismiss entirely testimony relating to the need for representative agreements".

"He didn't understand it," the spokesman said. "He hadn't heard of representative agreements.

"He himself admitted he'd never tried a case of this complexity, and he was hell-bent on getting a conviction."

Blacklist

The case marks the first time that bribe-givers, as well as takers, have found themselves in the dock in a high-profile international project.

In theory, that should put those found guilty on the World Bank's List of Ineligible Firms, currently numbering 74.

But pressure on the World Bank from its major shareholders - the Western countries from which most major multinationals stem - means that Acres could still keep bidding for Bank-funded contracts.

No major multinational with a decades-long history of working with the bank, like Acres, is on the list.

And ex-World Bank officials have told BBC News Online that it takes a very narrow definition of its rules.

Only if the bribery charges related directly to a portion of the overall project funded by the Bank can companies be blacklisted.

See also:

20 May 02 | Business
15 Mar 02 | Business
04 Apr 01 | Politics
10 Dec 99 | From Our Own Correspondent
15 May 99 | Africa
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