Page last updated at 04:03 GMT, Tuesday, 25 May 2010 05:03 UK

Are bribe firms escaping justice?

The Bribery Act, one of the last laws passed before the election, promised tougher action on UK firms involved in corruption abroad but as File on 4's Allan Urry has discovered, there are concerns that deals aimed at getting quicker convictions will undermine this approach.

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Critics say the UK is not tough enough on firms guilty of corruption abroad

It was a British-based firm with £20m of sales gained in Greece but there was only one snag - the company had spent hefty bribes to secure the orders.

An employee of DePuy International Ltd (DPI), which makes products such as plastic hip joints, exploited the corruption culture in Greece's public finances but came unstuck when its US-parent company, Johnson & Johnson, admitted its crimes to an American investigation.

In one raid in Greece police found documents leaving some doctors to answer some awkward questions about how they were earning way above their normal salaries.

"Every Greek is familiar with the idea of paying what's called the faculackie, a little bribe to a doctor or a consultant, sometimes in appreciation but more often than not to try to speed up the process of healthcare," said Professor Kevin Featherstone of the London School of Economics.

Corruption concerns

But as Professor Featherstone, who is a member of a committee advising Greece's Prime Minister how to stamp put corruption, the case goes way beyond paying a doctor to help you jump the queue.

"It has been a huge case within Greece and has highlighted the problem of corruption.

"It's also highlighted a sense of social injustice that here are professionals, managers within the health service who are raking in this kind of money at a time of financial stringency when ordinary Greeks are being asked to cut back," he added.

When the British Serious Fraud Office (SFO) investigated the UK connection it cut a deal with senior executive, Robert Dougall, DPI's director of marketing, in return for his help.

This was criticised by the trial judge who rejected a joint submission by prosecution and defence that Dougall should receive a suspended sentence for his cooperation and jailed him for a year.

Mr Justice Bean said: "I accept that public policy consideration. But it does not justify a suspended sentence in a case where corruption was systemic and long-term and involved several million pounds in corrupt payments."

However Dougall was freed on appeal and his sentence was suspended for two years.

DPI said it had cooperated fully with the "appropriate authorities in the UK", adding the "actions of this individual were contrary to Johnson & Johnson policies."

The SFO and the government through plea bargaining wanted to get quick results , to avoid paying large amounts of taxpayer's money on long investigations because corruption is notoriously difficult crime to investigate
Dr Sue Hawley, Corruption Watch

It added, "We continue to cooperate in this mater and for this reason are unable to make any additional comment."

At the end of the case an SFO statement sought to explain that Dougall's crimes had not been motivated by greed.

"Dougall acted to carry out the corporate intention of DPI. He neither sought nor gained personal benefit related to the corrupt arrangements," it stated.

But the kind of plea bargaining involved in Dougall's case damages the UK's reputation, according to some observers.

'Carrot and stick'

Dr Sue Hawley, of the organisation Corruption Watch, argues that Britain is not tough enough when it comes to UK firms behaving corruptly abroad.

"The SFO and the government through plea bargaining wanted to get quick results , to avoid paying large amounts of taxpayer's money on long investigations because corruption is notoriously difficult crime to investigate," she said.

"The problem is that the SFO has said to companies it is offering a carrot and stick approach... the question is whether the SFO is deploying as much stick as it is carrot."

She added, "We have seen only this softly, softly approach with companies that have come forward and cooperated."

The new government plans to revamp the way white collar crime is investigated and has announced its intentions to "create a single agency to take on the work of tackling serious economic crime that is currently done by, among others, the Serious Fraud Office, Financial Services Authority and Office of Fair Trading."

However, it is yet to give details about the agency and no minister was prepared to be interviewed by File on 4.

File on 4 is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday, 25 May 2010, at 2000 BST, repeated Sunday, 30 May, at 1700 BST. You can listen via the BBC iPlayer or download the podcast.



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