Glencore probe silences critics of UK’s top prosecutor

Ivan Glasenberg, Glencore’s chief executive officer. (Image: Wikipedia.)

First U.K. authorities were investigating Glencore Plc, and then they weren’t. On Thursday, the Serious Fraud Office jumped back in, saying it had opened a bribery probe into the mining company and some executives, sending the shares tumbling.

The bribery investigation is a remarkable turnaround, and a clear sign how aligned the U.K. agency’s new leadership is with authorities in the U.S. The probe of possible bribery by Glencore, its officials, employees, agents and others comes after the SFO decided not to open one last year, despite the protests by some of the agency’s senior staff at the time.

The announcement is the most high-profile and ambitious case by the SFO since Lisa Osofsky, a former U.S. prosecutor and FBI legal counsel, assumed the leadership in August 2018. The office has recently come under criticism by activists, lawyers and academics for not pursuing top tier cases, something Osofsky has rejected.

“The general feeling since Lisa Osofsky took over as SFO director has been that there has been no news of any major new investigations and yet a number of long-running investigations have been ended without anything to show,” Aziz Rahman, who runs the business crime law firm Rahman Ravelli in London, said. “This could be seen as the perfect response to that accusation.”

The SFO has had a rocky 30 years of life, with politicians frequently floating the idea of closing it. Former Prime Minister Theresa May promised to do just that in 2017, a threat she never followed through on. The threat nevertheless sapped the morale of SFO staff.

SFO investigators first considered looking into Glencore when suspicions emerged during their seven-year bribery probe into mining company Eurasian Natural Resources

Osofsky has since spoken of her willingness to take on the hardest cases, though her term has so far been more characterized by decisions to halt investigations into alleged wrongdoing at Rolls-Royce Plc and GlaxoSmithKline Plc and open narrower probes into more manageable targets.

“I have every interest in prosecuting big ticket cases,” Osofsky said in an interview in October. “I have beefed up our intelligence, because I don’t want to be held prisoner to the next whistleblower walking through the door.”

SFO investigators first considered looking into Glencore when suspicions emerged during their seven-year bribery probe into mining company Eurasian Natural Resources Corp., people with knowledge of the case have said. That case revolves around ENRC’s dealings with Israeli businessman Dan Gertler and his relationship with former Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila. Glencore obtained valuable copper and cobalt mines in Congo with Gertler’s help and SFO case workers found reasonable grounds to look into that relationship too, the people said.

Glencore’s institutional shareholders will now sue the firm in a U.K. court for damages suffered, because bribery probes have pushed down its share price, lawyers for Boies Schiller Flexner said on Thursday. The lawsuit is “expected to run into the billions,” Boies said. A spokesman for Glencore declined to comment.

Spokespeople for Gertler, ENRC and Kabila all deny wrongdoing.

The U.S. Justice Department opened its own investigation into Glencore’s activities in Congo, Nigeria and Venezuela in July 2018, prompting an acting SFO director to reject his own team request to open a case. In the October interview, Osofsky declined to disclose whether the office would probe Glencore.

“We announce certain things when they are in the interest of U.K. Plc,” Osofsky said. “But I am not able to discuss any specific cases and you don’t know what may or may not be going on.”

The SFO case will probably be in close coordination with U.S. counterparts, after Osofsky, a joint U.S.-U.K. national, has worked hard to stabilize an often fractious partnership. Under her leadership, the SFO has allowed the Justice Department to take the lead on a high-profile case it had been investigating for several years. It is likely that the two will be collaborating on the Glencore case too.

(By Franz Wild)

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