SFO tells consultant it is not cooperating, while Sweett continues its own independent investigation into historic bribery allegations

Sweet Group has admitted the Serious Fraud Office considers it to not be co-operating with its investigation into historic bribery allegations relating to the firm’s Middle East division.

In a statement to investors this morning, Sweett Group said the Serious Fraud Office (SFO) had informed it that the SFO considered Sweett Group to be non-co-operative because it is continuing to carry out its own internal inquiry in to the allegations. Sweet Group said it believed it was doing all it could to co-operate.

The SFO investigation relates to allegations reported in the Wall Street Journal last year that in 2010 a Sweett executive told an architect at US-based practice HLW hoping to work on a hospital project in Morocco that his company would have to pay 3.5% of the value of the contract to an official at the client to win it.

In July Sweett disclosed the SFO had launched an investigation into the allegations. Meanwhile Sweett has been carrying out its own independent investigation into the allegations, conducted by law firm Mayer Brown, since April.

In its statement this morning Sweett said: “Sweett Group believes that it is doing all that it reasonably can to cooperate with the SFO investigation while at the same time exercising its fundamental right to legal professional privilege in fulfilling its corporate and regulatory requirements.

“In mid-August 2014, Sweett Group took the decision on legal advice to continue its independent investigation. Consequent to that decision, the SFO no longer considered Sweett Group to be cooperating.

“The company will continue to comply with all reasonable requests made by the SFO, subject to legal professional privilege.”

According to a speech earlier this year by Alun Milford, general counsel for the SFO, not co-operating with one of its investigations increases the likelihood of the SFO deciding that a prosecution would be in the public interest. Non-co-operation is also likely to make it harder to for any firm subject to an investigation to reach a “deferred prosecution agreement” with the SFO that would allow it to sidestep a criminal prosecution.

Sweett hired Mayer Brown to undertake a second investigation into the allegations, after an earlier investigation by Pinsent Mason found the allegations were “not proven”.

In its April statement Sweett said Mayer Brown uncovered “material instances of deception [that] may have been perpetrated by a former employee or employees of the Group during the period 2009 – 2011”.

In this morning’s statement Sweett reiterated the Mayer Brown investigation is “nearing completion”, as stated in the firm’s profit warning last Thursday.

The SFO has been contacted for comment. More to follow…