The Serious Fraud Office today dropped its investigation into allegations of bribery at British American Tobacco’s East African operations but said it would continue assisting other law enforcement in their investigations.
A whistleblower who worked for BAT for 13 years had told the BBC’s Panorama programme in 2015: “BAT is bribing people, and I’m facilitating it.”
He shared hundreds of documents with the BBC and the authorities to support his claims that he had paid bribes because he was told it was “the cost of doing business in Africa.”
The programme included a recording purporting to be of the employee, Paul Hopkins, explaining to a BAT lawyer that bribes would be needed to certain officials “to keep their mouths shut.”
The lawyer responds: “Yeah OK. Anything else you think we will need to be paying for?”
However, the SFO said it did not find enough evidence to prosecute.
Pointedly, however, it said it would continue helping other “law enforcement partners” on the case.
BAT has dismissed Hopkins’ evidence as being the words of a rogue employee and has repeatedly denied it bribes people.
Panorama’s documentary claimed to show evidence BAT made illegal payments to two current and one former member of the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, a United Nations campaign to cut tobacco-related deaths.
The documentary also purported to show BAT paid bribes to undermine anti-smoking legislation in Kenya.
BAT said to the BBC at the time that its accusers left the company in “acrimonious circumstances and have a vendetta against us, clearly demonstrated by the false picture they present of how we do business."
The SFO said in a statement: “Following extensive investigation and a comprehensive review of the available evidence, the SFO has concluded its investigation into British American Tobacco, its subsidiaries and associated persons.
"The evidence in this case did not meet the evidential test for prosecution as defined in the Code for Crown Prosecutors.
"The SFO will continue to offer assistance to the ongoing investigations of other law enforcement partners. We thank our international law enforcement partners, and in particular the Kenyan Ethics and Anti-Corruption Commission (EACC), for their assistance in the SFO’s investigation.”
BAT has previously denied claims of bribery in Uganda.
The investigation’s closure brought criticism in London, as it comes on the back of many such cases. Bambos Tsiattalou, partner of Stokoe Partnership Solicitors, said: "Yet another Serious Fraud Office investigation has collapsed. Its investigation into British American Tobacco began over three years ago and it has not been able to build a case strong enough to secure a result in that time.
Better judgement should be exercised before such huge investigations are embarked upon."