Bribery case tussle opens US-UK rift

The US Department of Justice acted as a conduit for a complaint against the UK's anti-fraud agency from a prime suspect both were investigating as part of a multibillion-pound corruption probe, the Financial Times has learnt.

The unusual move by US prosecutors in 2018 amplified tensions between British and American anti-fraud agencies and came as the DoJ was attempting to secure the co-operation of the suspect, Saman Ahsani.

Both the DoJ and the UK's Serious Fraud Office had been investigating Mr Ahsani as part of a scandal surrounding Unaoil, a Monaco-based consultancy that his family had founded at the centre of a global web of bribery in the energy sector.

The blockbuster case has resulted in high-profile convictions on both sides of the Atlantic, but has caused a rift between the two agencies and sparked internal investigations at the SFO, including into the conduct of the agency's director, Lisa Osofsky.

Mr Ahsani's complaint in July 2018 about Tom Martin, the SFO prosecutor managing the UK's Unaoil probe, was given to the DoJ, which passed it to the SFO along with its own complaint about the same lawyer, according to documents seen by the FT.

At the time, the DoJ was battling with the SFO over Mr Ahsani; the UK authorities wanted to put him on trial while the US wanted him to help unlock other investigations into companies allegedly paying bribes.

In meetings between the DoJ and lawyers for the British-Iranian Ahsani family that year, the parties had discussed their frustration with Mr Martin, according to a lawyer involved.

Mr Ahsani's complaint filed to the DoJ stated that "disclosure of these concerns" was only to be made to parties "agreed between Mr Ahsani's counsel and the US Department of Justice".

The Ahsani family had previously complained to a UK judge about the SFO's tactics in a judicial review in 2016.

Mr Martin had also attracted complaints from Australian authorities investigating Unaoil. Only one of the 34 allegations against him was ultimately upheld by the SFO, but he was suspended in July 2018 and later fired.

In 2019, Mr Martin, who denies any wrongdoing, sued the SFO over his dismissal and awaits an employment tribunal hearing. The investigator appointed by the SFO in 2018 to review the claims against Mr Martin said it was "noteworthy" that Mr Ahsani's complaint came via the DoJ "rather than directly to the SFO", according to internal documents seen by the FT.

A US lawyer with knowledge of the case characterised the DoJ's handling of the complaints as an attempt to ensure senior SFO leadership were aware of the full scope of the allegations about Mr Martin. "There was no conspiracy or side deal with the Ahsanis' lawyers," the person said.

An individual close to Mr Ahsani's legal team said his complaint had been sent via the DoJ because the Monaco resident had chosen to co-operate with US law enforcement by that time.

The DoJ and SFO declined to comment when asked about the complaints. Mr Ahsani was arrested in April 2018 in Rome following a UK extradition request, but was speaking to the DoJ at the same time about a potential plea deal, triggering a diplomatic bust-up first reported by the Guardian.

He ultimately travelled to the US in August to co-operate, according to two people familiar with the events. Mr Ahsani and his brother, Cyrus, both pleaded guilty to US bribery offences in March 2019. Their father, Ata, who was wanted by the SFO, was never charged.

Susan Hawley, executive director at campaign group Spotlight on Corruption, said it was "absolutely extraordinary and frankly outrageous" that the DoJ "would act in concert with those accused of extensive and egregious corruption" to lodge complaints against the SFO.

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