Former chief of foreign aid contractor acquitted of bribery blasts police over investigation

The former chief executive of a major foreign aid contractor has blasted police after being acquitted in a landmark foreign bribery case, saying its poor handling of the investigation was conducted with “little regard” for its “human, reputation, and financial cost”.

In 2018, Australian federal police charged consulting firm Sinclair Knight Merz, a political donor and frequent contractor for the foreign affairs department, with bribing officials in south-east Asia to obtain work across almost a decade.

The case alleged the company paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to officials in the Philippines and Vietnam governments between 2003 and 2012 to obtain work on development projects, often disguising them as “marketing” or other payments to third parties.

The company, since acquired by Californian consulting giant Jacobs, pleaded guilty and was fined more than $1.4m in the New South Wales supreme court last year.

The company’s former chief executive, Paul Dougas, and four other executives were also charged with engaging in a conspiracy to bribe officials, but took the case to trial last month.

It was the first time a foreign bribery case had gone to trial. The case focused only on the allegations related to bribery in the Philippines.

A jury took two days to acquit them and commonwealth prosecutors subsequently dropped plans for a second trial over the Vietnam bribery allegations. Suppression orders that had blocked reporting of details of the case were lifted this week.

In a statement, Dougas said he was “relieved and grateful for the jury’s decision to acquit me and my former colleagues”.

“The four years that this prosecution has taken have been exceptionally difficult, not only for me but also for my family, who have lived with the uncertainty that this prosecution cast over my professional standing and future,” he said.

“Throughout my tenure as CEO of SKM, I endeavoured to lead a company that acted legally and ethically at all times, no matter where we were operating throughout the world.”

Dougas said he felt the ordeal could “have been avoided if the AFP had properly and adequately investigated the matter for itself, instead of pursuing their case with little regard for the human, reputation and financial cost of doing so”.

The firm conducted an internal investigation and self-reported the bribery allegations to the World Bank’s integrity arm in 2012. The AFP began investigating the allegations in July 2013, but did not bring charges until 2018.

In sentencing SKM last year, the NSW supreme court said the delays “have not been adequately or satisfactorily explained”.

The court found the offending was limited to one small part of the company and the “participants took great care to conceal their criminality from the wider company”.

The AFP declined to comment.

A Jacobs spokesperson has previously told the Guardian the activities took place well before it acquired SKM and in no way reflect the “ethical business standards and practices of Jacobs”.

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