London jury acquits three Sarclad staff despite corporate plea deal

LONDON (Reuters) - Three former employees of Sarclad, a British technology business that supplies the metals industry, were acquitted of bribery charges on Tuesday, although the company had accepted it failed to prevent corrupt payments over an eight-year period.

A London jury cleared former managing director Michael Sorby, 75, ex-sales head Adrian Leek, 43, and 48-year-old former project manager David Justice of conspiracy to corrupt and conspiracy to bribe in relation to 27 overseas contracts, the Britain’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) said.

After the jury delivered its verdict, reporting restrictions were lifted on a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) -- a court-approved corporate plea deal -- struck between the SFO prosecutor and Sarclad in 2016.

Under the DPA, which suspends a prosecution in return for terms such as a fine and remedial measures, Sarclad accepted charges of corruption and that bribes had been used to secure contracts of more than 17 million pounds between 2004 and 2012 and paid a 6.5 million pound fine, the SFO said.

However, the SFO was not able to show that various Sarclad agents actually paid bribes to named and unknown individuals, according to DPA-related court documents released alongside the acquittal notice.

Lawyers for Sorby and Leek said their clients were delighted with the verdict. Leek’s lawyer Paul Haycock, associate director at law firm Irwin Mitchell, said the verdict brought into question the DPA process. Dan Stowers, a partner at Shoosmiths who represented Sorby, called the SFO investigation “flawed”.

A lawyer for Justice was not immediately available for comment.

Sarclad officials could not immediately be reached for comment.

DPAs, introduced in Britain in 2014 in part to help settle costly corporate investigations, have attracted criticism after contradictory outcomes in subsequent criminal cases against individuals.

Judges dismissed SFO charges of former directors of supermarket giant Tesco TSCO.L mid-trial last December, despite a previous DPA struck on the assumption of the guilt of former employees. They ruled there was no case to answer.

Michael Potts, a lawyer at Byrne and Partners, said a DPA could not guarantee convictions of individuals because of a higher burden of proof demanded in criminal trials.

“Often trials produce disclosure that was not properly analysed previously or sometimes witnesses do not come up to proof,” he said. “It is not very satisfactory to have two different outcomes but it is an inevitability of the system.”

Reporting by Kirstin Ridley; Editing by Edmund Blair