Australian Police Say Appropriate Steps Taken in BHP Bribery Case

The Australian Federal Police (AFP) said Monday they have taken the necessary steps to investigate claims that the world’s largest mining company, BHP Billiton, bribed officials in Cambodia and played down reports that it had mishandled one the country’s largest cases in corporate corruption.

Citing confidential documents, The Sydney Morning Herald on Monday published a story that said the AFP and the Australian Securities and Investments Com­mis­sion had last year “made a ‘critical decision’ not to investigate criminal allegations” that employees at BHP Billiton bribed officials in Cam­bodia, China and Western Australia when U.S. authorities referred the case to them in May 2010.

But the AFP said it started investigating the allegations earlier this year.

“The AFP received a referral on BHP Billiton in May 2010. This referral was assessed with the knowledge that United States authorities were investigating the matter. In consultation with U.S. authorities, in February 2013, the AFP undertook to investigate Australian nationals identified during the U.S. investigation,” Julie Hope, a spokesperson for the AFP, said in an email from Canberra.

The U.S. Securities Exchange Commission has been investigating BHP Billiton on allegations of corruption since May 2009.

AFP documents obtained by The Sydney Morning Herald last month through a freedom of information request and posted Monday on the newspaper’s website, reveal that the AFP had received information in May 2010 from U.S. authorities that alleges workers at BHP Billiton bribed foreign officials. But a year later, the AFP rejected the claim and, according to the documents, it wasn’t until February that the agency decided to reinvestigate.

Ms. Hope declined to comment about the AFP’s decision to reopen the case besides saying it was done in consultation with U.S authorities.

“As this is an ongoing investigation, it would not be appropriate to provide further information at this time,” she said.

In October, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and De­vel­opment (OECD) released a report that criticized Australia’s enforcement of foreign bribery rules. The OECD report, although not naming specific companies, discussed cases thought to be linked to the activities of BHP Billiton and OZ Minerals, another Australian mining company, in Cambodia.

In March, diplomatic cables released by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade revealed that both Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh had played central roles in negotiating the multimillion-dollar deal with BHP Billiton in 2006.

In 2007, Water Resources Min­ister Lim Kean Hor told the National Assembly that Mr. Hun Sen, while on a visit to Australia in 2006 to sign off on a deal for a bauxite mine in Mondolkiri province, called him to say BHP Billiton had agreed to pay $2.5 million in “tea money,” which was allegedly used to set up a social development fund to improve the wellbeing of Cambodians.

But in 2009, BHP Billiton shut down the Mondolkiri mine and provided the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission with evidence of possible corruption.

Cambodian officials could not be reached Monday for comment.

Samantha Stevens, vice president of media relations and public affairs at BHP Billiton, said Monday the company is continuing its internal investigation launched in 2009 and is cooperating with authorities.

“It is not possible at this time to predict the likely outcomes of the matter. We are not in a position to comment about what is or is not the subject of any continuing in­vestigation,” she said.

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