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Richard Kingston (a former Managing Director of Sweett Group plc, a construction and professional services company) has been jailed having been found guilty of destroying evidence relating to an ongoing Serious Fraud Office (SFO) bribery and corruption investigation.
Allegations of bribery were first reported on 21st June 2013 in the Wall Street Journal. The allegations concerned a meeting between Kingston and a former employee of HLW International LLP, a US-based architecture firm. At the meeting Kingston is purported to have said that in order for HLW International LLP to obtain work for a construction project (managed by Cyril Sweett International Ltd), a bribe would be required. The bribe was allegedly 3.5% of the contract value and payable to an official inside the UAE president's personal foundation (which was funding the project). Sweett notified the SFO of the allegations and began independent investigations, on 14th July 2014 the SFO announced it had opened an investigation into Sweett. On 2nd December 2015 Sweett admitted an offence under section 7 of the Act regarding its conduct in the Middle East and entered into a Deferred Prosecution Agreement.
Richard Kingston himself was originally arrested in 2014 in relation to the suspected bribes paid by Sweett Group between 2009 and 2011 when he was the Managing Director for the Middle East and India at Cyril Sweett International Ltd.
Now, ancillary to this investigation, the SFO has announced on the 21st of December 2016 that Richard Kingston has been convicted of two destruction of evidence offences contrary to section 2 (16) of the Criminal Justice Act 1987. Tom Payne representing the SFO, informed the jury that there was evidence to show that Richard Kingston had concealed, destroyed or otherwise disposed of two mobile telephones containing emails, texts and WhatsApp messages despite knowing or suspecting that the data stored on the devices would be relevant to the SFO’s investigation.
Judicial Outcome and Comment
Following the trial Richard Kingston was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment on each count of destruction of evidence relating to the SFO's investigations. The SFO’s General Counsel, Alun Milford said, “Richard Kingston actively took steps to frustrate our inquiries into his involvement, and that of others, in the suspected payment of bribes. We will not hesitate to pursue those who may set out similarly to disrupt our investigations.”
This outcome and quoted response from the SFO reinforces the zero tolerance approach taken towards obstructive behaviours such as destruction of evidence which impedes investigations under the Act or in relation to other serious or complex frauds. It serves as a clear warning of the risks of additional penalties of up to 7 years and/or an unlimited fine which could be incurred. It is fair to conclude that a broad range of similar individual or company practices which could hamper the SFO's inquiries carry the risk of conviction.
This conviction is illustrative of the SFO's growing confidence in its ability to successfully and proactively enforce the Bribery Act. It is crucial to remember that companies can be held responsible for the actions of their contractors, agents, subsidiaries and employees and so any commercial organisation should ensure that they have proportionate anti-bribery policies and procedures in place. Additionally, all persons working for or with the organisation should be adequately trained in proper practice and a positive culture of effective data management with consistent procedures for deletion of documents should be implemented in order to avoid prosecution under the Act or for any related contingent or ancillary offenses.
If you have any queries or concerns with regard to corporate criminal liability, please contact a member of our Business Risk and Regulation Team.