Expose bungs on Twitter, says SFO

Companies that encounter corrupt overseas officials should use the micro­blogging site Twitter to name them, the head of Britain’s white-collar crime agency has said.

Richard Alderman, the director of the Serious Fraud Office, told a delegation of Russian and US executives on Thursday that Twitter and other social media could be used as an instant way for businesses to join forces to stamp out the practice of paying bungs where it is still commonplace.

“If someone is being hit for a bribe, isn’t the easiest thing just to put it on Twitter? It goes round the world in next to no time,” Mr Alderman said. “I just wonder if in this day and age, that kind of impact would be effective.”

Mr Alderman made his comments a fortnight before the biggest overhaul in the UK bribery laws take effect.

At the same time, Twitter’s instant and global reach is having a profound effect on how privacy and libel law operates, including in the UK, where the debate on so-called super-injunctions reached a peak last month after a Twitter user listed celebrities who allegedly had taken out gag orders.

“It seems to me a problematic suggestion in that plainly there’s a danger that this will give rise to false allegations that potentially can be damaging, and there’s a risk of defamation actions arising,” Dan Tench, a media lawyer at Olswang, said of Mr Alderman’s proposal. “There’s a danger that if such allegations are made publicly, it would have the potential to interfere with any proper investigation.”

The legal dangers of whistleblowing on Twitter were underlined by a case involving South Tyneside council.

After a successful appeal to the courts in California, where Twitter is based, the company was forced to identify a handful of accounts posting information that the council argued was libellous.

Mr Alderman is following the example of ipaidabribe. com, a website set up in India to publicise corrupt officials that has had some success in forcing departments to reform.

The SFO, which on Wednesday won a stay of execution from the Home Office as part of its plans to create an overarching crime agency, is the lead prosecuting agency for the Bribery Act, which comes into force on July 1.

The agency will not be averse to flexing its muscles in enforcing the act. Mr Alderman made clear that US-style surprise arrests of overseas nationals visiting the UK were possible.

“You can’t be sure that you won’t be stopped at the airport,” he said. “We are not going to write to say, ‘if you turn up, you will be arrested’. It may or may not happen.”

But the SFO is also operating a leniency policy. Companies could have a grace period of potentially several years, as long as they are proactive in talking to the SFO, Mr Alderman told the US-Russia Business Council on ­Thursday.

“I think implicit in that approach is if you don’t ’fess up, you can expect the SFO to come down pretty hard on you,” said Arnondo Chakrabarti, a lawyer at Allen & Overy. He cautioned the SFO not to use US-style arrests to garner headlines, particularly after the Tchenguiz brothers’ case. They are suing the agency for improperly undertaking dawn raids and arrests in an investigation against them.

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