Sam Dastyari in the Senate. Photo: Alex EllinghausenSome of corporate Australia’s top figures, including former executives from BHP Billiton and Leighton Holdings, are set to be called to a Senate inquiry and grilled about allegations the firms bribed foreign officials.
In a move likely to alarm boardrooms across the nation, Labor Senator Sam Dastyari, along with key crossbenchers and the Greens, will launch a Senate inquiry into the alleged corrupt practices of Australian companies overseas and why some firms appear to be getting away with paying bribes to win contracts.
Senator Dastyari on Thursday night named former Leighton Holdings boss Wal King, who was the most senior official in the company during some of its allegedly corrupt dealings in Iraq and other countries.
Senator Dastyari said the dealings allegedly involved the payment of tens of millions of dollars in bribes to win an oil pipeline contract.
“David Savage was the former senior executive who allegedly approved bribe payments [and] David Stewart was the former CEO who allegedly was told of the bribery but did not act,” he told the Senate. Mr King, Mr Stewart and Mr Savage have previously denied any wrongdoing.
Mr Dastyari also flagged that an inquiry would target the BHP-Billiton managers who oversaw allegedly improper payments and gifts given by the firm in Cambodia and as part of its sponsorship of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. “This will not be an inquiry simply into Leighton Holdings, but Leighton Holdings serves as a powerful case study for foreign corrupt practices and how the powerful can exploit the system,” Senator Dastyari said.
“There will be other examples, including the allegations BHP attempted to bribe Chinese officials.”
The Senate inquiry follows Fairfax Media articles about questionable overseas behaviour by a range of companies, as well as what Senator
Dastyari has described as Australia’s substandard anti-foreign-bribery regime.
“Australia urgently needs to reform both its legislative framework and its approach to enforcement,” he said, pointing to the far more effective anti-bribery schemes in the United States and the United Kingdom.
In his speech before the Senate, Senator Dastyari also described the allegedly questionable dealings of Leighton subsidiary, mining giant Thiess, in India and Indonesia.
He also said he had obtained documents which “suggest that Leighton’s subsidiary was paying Indonesian commandos and paramilitaries to do their dirty work during an industrial dispute with indigenous workers”.
Senator Dastyari said he would “invite” Mr King, Mr Savage, Mr Stewart and other executives to appear before the committee.
But he also warned that he would “use every power available to me through the Australian Senate to ensure that the allegations of corrupt behaviour by Leighton Holdings are properly aired”. Senate inquiries can summon people to appear before it.
The AFP has recently ramped up its attack on Australian firms engaging in foreign bribery, but key investigations have been delayed due to the difficulty meeting the high evidentiary bar.
In an exclusive interview, former federal court judge Roger Gyles – who was recently appointed by the Abbott government to review the nation’s terrorism laws and who also chairs the local branch of corruption watchdog Transparency International – has also called for changes to Australia’s foreign bribery laws.
The key change needed, said Mr Gyles, was moving the burden of proof from prosecutors to those who have been shown to have made payments to foreign officials. If the company cannot show a payment is legitimate, then a case may be proven.
“Australia’s record of enforcement in this area has been poor and in addition to increasing our law enforcement in this area, the most important thing is to get our legislation in order,” Mr Gyles said.
The AFP has been investigating Leighton for almost four years without a result, while allegations about BHP Billiton were first raised with the AFP in 2009 but not acted upon because US corruption investigators were already probing them.
The BHP-Billiton investigation remains unresolved in the US, with the AFP poised to begin its own inquiry once US authorities take action.
Fairfax Media has previously published company documents which suggest Leighton Holdings paid bribes in Iraq and elsewhere 2009 and 2012.