If there is one recent development that will have increased the importance of many organisations to undertake a comprehensive company governance review, it is surely the recent case of the Eastbourne printing firm, Smith and Ouzman Limited, which was hit with a £2.2 million fine in relation to bribery offences.
The formerly highly respected company was ordered to pay in total a £1,316,799 fine, £881,158 confiscation order and £25,000 costs, at a sentencing hearing at Southwark Crown Court on 8th January 2016. The punishment concerned a prosecution by the Serious Fraud Office (SFO), following an investigation, which began in October 2010, that corrupt payments of £395,074 had been made by the company to public officials in Kenya and Mauritania in exchange for business contracts.
Father and son Christopher and Nicholas Smith, chairman and sales and marketing director at the company respectively, were convicted on 22nd December 2014 under the Prevention of Corruption Act 1906. Although the offences pre-dated the Bribery Act 2010, both were sentenced to terms of imprisonment.
While £2.2 million is far from the largest fine that has been imposed for bribery offences, it is nonetheless an extremely damaging one for Smith and Ouzman, who were required the confiscation order to be paid within 28 days. While the majority of the overall fine can be paid in instalments over a five-year period – inevitably will place great cash flow pressure on the company. This is to say nothing of the irreparable damage to the firm’s once formidable reputation.
The case also has much wider importance for those contemplating a company governance review. It is a reminder that SMEs are by no means untouchable by the SFO in England or the Crown Office and Procurator Fiscal Service (COPFS) in Scotland, who have shown their determination to eradicate corruption at all levels of business, encompassing not just domestic affairs but also overseas relationships.
Some of the corrupt payments were made to members of Kenya’s Interim Independent Electoral Commission (IIEC), an independent body ironically seen as key to the overall infrastructure of the country’s elections, and the case has been heavily documented by Kenya’s press and dealt significant damage to its democratic process.
While there will likely always be some organisations that argue it is impossible to do business without bribes, bribery is not a victimless crime. Amid such widely publicised crackdowns as the Smith and Ouzman case, it is therefore critically important for SMEs to implement comprehensive compliance programmes – including training their staff on the Bribery Act 2010 – to ensure that they remain on the right side of the law, particularly when dealing with certain ‘high risk’ countries.