Has Basil Fawlty taken over at the Serious Fraud Office?
We only ask because the agency - which, lest we forget, is currently being sued by the Tchenguiz brothers for £300m - has lost 32,000 pages of documents relating to an investigation into BAE Systems.
It’s also misplaced 81 audio tapes and a load of ‘electronic media’ - although it insists it’s recovered 98% of the material. Which, by our calculations, leaves 640 pages, one and a half tapes and some emails floating around in the ether.
The investigation in question has had its fair share of controversy: the deal it was looking into, between BAE Systems and Saudi Arabia, is nicknamed the ‘al-Yamamah deal’. The contract was first signed in the 1980s, and went on until 2006.
But allegations of bribery and corruption led the SFO to begin an investigation into the deal in 2004 - although that was shut down by the government two years later on grounds of ‘public interest’, ie. national security. Eventually, BAE Systems paid £289m in fines to the UK and US governments.
By law, the SFO now has to return the evidence to its original owners if they request it - and it sounds like only now has it realised it’s disappeared.
‘The SFO has a duty to return material to those who supplied it, upon request, after the close of an investigation,’ it said in a statement.
‘In this instance the party requesting the return was sent additional material which had in fact been obtained from other sources. We have contacted the 59 sources of this data to inform them of the situation and are working to contact any others who may have been affected.’
Usually in this situation, there would be calls for an investigation - but as the agency is already under review, by former civil servant Alan Woods, this is just another item on his increasingly lengthy ‘to-do’ list.
Other items include the Tchenguiz brothers, after a judgement ruled the SFO’s highly public dawn arrests of the property tycoons were unlawful.
Fortunately for the SFO, BAE Systems resisted the temptation to lash out, saying simply that ‘this is a matter for the SFO and as far as BAE Systems is concerned, it is now closed’.