The U.S. has closed its probe into allegations that BHP Billiton bribed foreign officials to secure overseas mining rights and fined the firm $25 million in a settlement that does not mention Cambodia, which was widely believed to have been part of the investigation.
However, reports that the Australian mining giant in 2006 paid an unofficial commission worth at least $1.35 million to secure an exploration license in Cambodia’s northeast may still be part of an ongoing investigation by the Australian Federal Police (AFP).
The AFP launched its investigation into BHP in 2013, three years after it was sent evidence by U.S. authorities that Australian nationals may have breached the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
Last week, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) announced that it had finished its probe that began in 2009, charged BHP with breaking the Corrupt Practices Act and fined it $25 million, which the firm had agreed to pay.
Nowhere, however, does the settlement order mention the allegations involving Cambodia.
According to the order, BHP paid for 60 government officials and employees of state-owned enterprises from Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Guinea and the Philippines—along with some spouses and other guests—to attend the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing. The three- and four-day “hospitality packages” cost $12,000 to $16,0000 each.
Technically, the SEC did not charge BHP with bribing the officials, but with failing to set up and maintain adequate internal controls over its hospitality program.
“BHP Billiton footed the bill for foreign government officials to attend the Olympics while they were in a position to help the company with its business or regulatory endeavors,” Andrew Ceresney, the SEC’s enforcement division director, said in a statement.
“BHP Billiton recognized that inviting government officials to the Olympics created a heightened risk of violating anti-corruption laws, yet the company failed to implement sufficient internal controls to address that heightened risk.”
An SEC spokeswoman declined to say if the Cambodian allegations were actually investigated. Asked if the settlement ended the SEC’s corruption probe into BHP, she referred to a statement the firm issued last week following the settlement’s disclosure.
That statement from BHP says the settlement resolved all issues raised in the investigation the SEC launched in 2009, and that the U.S. Department of Justice—which was looking into the same issues—had decided to take no action. Together, it says, they “conclude the U.S. investigations.”
But BHP is not out of the woods just yet.
“BHP Billiton will continue to cooperate with the Australian Federal Police investigation, which was announced in 2013,” BHP adds.
The company has refused to elaborate on the scope of that investigation, and the AFP did not reply to a request for comment.
Suspicion first fell on BHP’s operations in Cambodia in 2007 when Water Resources Minister Lim Kim Hor, speaking at the National Assembly, recounted a telephone call he received from Prime Minister Hun Sen the year before.
The prime minister, he said, was calling from Australia to let him know that BHP had just agreed to pay $2.5 million in “tea money”—a common term for a bribe—for the rights to explore for bauxite in Mondolkiri province.
The government claimed that the money, which came on top of the $1 million BHP paid for the exploration license itself, had all gone into a “social fund”—its accounts have never been fully disclosed so that the claim could be verified—and that it only ever amounted to $1.35 million because the project was cut short.
The Australian newspaper, however, had reported that BHP gave the SEC a batch of emails between company executives and Cambodian government officials which appeared to show that the payments made to the government risked breaking anti-corruption laws in the U.S.