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The Guardian

Judge rebukes SFO boss over ‘flattering’ texts from private detective Rob Evans and David Pegg July 14, 2020

A judge has criticised Britain’s most senior anti-bribery prosecutor over “flattering” text messages she received from a US private investigator who was seeking to secure more favourable sentences for his clients.

The exchanges between Lisa Osofsky, the director of the Serious Fraud Office, and David Tinsley, a Florida-based private detective, can be reported for the first time following the conclusion of a criminal trial into corruption in the energy industry.

The judge Martin Beddoe said Osofsky and other senior SFO figures should not have had any contact with the investigator, who had no recognised legal role in the case.

In a ruling, he criticised Osofsky for tacitly encouraging Tinsley, who had pressed suspects to admit their involvement in a worldwide bribery scheme.

The SFO is setting up an inquiry after the judge said its contacts with Tinsley should be “comprehensively reviewed to see what lessons can be learned from it”.

Sue Hawley, of the anti-bribery campaign Spotlight on Corruption, said: “This was a serious lapse of judgment. . [Osofsky] went above the heads of her staff and behind the backs of the lawyers defending those her agency was trying to prosecute, to engage with an unofficial freelance operator.”

Osofsky, a dual US/UK national, was appointed as director of the SFO two years ago after working for the FBI and commercial firms.

Her conduct was revealed in a bribery trial when a defendant attempted to have the prosecution against him dismissed.

Reporting restrictions on the move – which was ultimately unsuccessful – were lifted at the conclusion of the trial at Southwark crown court in London.

Two businessmen were found guilty of conspiring to make corrupt payments to win huge contracts in the Iraqi oil industry.

They were prosecuted by the SFO, which has spent five years investigating claims that Unaoil, a Monaco-based consultancy, paid bribes around the world to help secure contracts for multinational firms that had hired the firm.

One of them was Ziad Akle, 45, Unaoil’s territory manager for Iraq. In January, at the start of the trial, Akle’s QC, Jim Sturman, claimed the prosecution should be halted as he could not get a fair trial.

He argued Tinsley and the SFO had “brazenly flouted” guidelines that are meant to ensure improper pressure is not brought to bear on a defendant to plead guilty.

Sturman outlined the “large number of contacts” between Osofsky and other senior SFO figures and Tinsley, whose firm, 5 Stones intelligence, takes its name from the Bible.

In one exchange, Tinsley texted Osofsky an article with the message “mercy means valuing relationships over rules”. “Inspiring,” she responded.

In another exchange, Tinsley told Osofsky after a successful meeting: “We are moving to a good solution … you’re the bomb.” She said a colleague had “joined the DT fan club”.

Osofsky told Tinsley she was “super honoured” that Tinsley was “coming our way” and “we work well together and will continue to do so”.

Sturman accused her of sending texts to Tinsley like a teenager who had just found a new best friend.

Tinsley had been hired by members of the Ahsani family, the owners of Unaoil, after the SFO and American prosecutors began investigating.

Sturman told the court that while working for the Ahsanis, Tinsley approached Akle and another suspect behind the back of their lawyers and improperly “browbeat” them to plead guilty to corruption charges.

Tinsley offered false promises that they would be treated leniently in return, according to Sturman. He told the court that Tinsley then fed details of his discussions with Akle and the second suspect to Osofsky and others at the SFO.

Beddoe dismissed the application but said he “upheld some of the criticism which has been advanced at a very senior level within the SFO”.

He said Osofsky and others at the SFO should have had nothing to do with Tinsley, whom he said was “someone who had no official status, who was not employed by any US government agency, was not the Ahsanis’ lawyer (not a lawyer at all), but a freelance agent who was patently acting only in the interests of the Ahsanis … and they should not have countenanced let alone encouraged (if only tacitly) his contact” with Akle.

According to Beddoe, Tinsley “was not hesitant in flattering Ms Osofsky and talking up her talents, and unfortunately Ms Osofsky made herself vulnerable to them.”

An SFO spokesperson said: “The judge in this case found no evidence that the SFO acted in bad faith, nothing unlawful and nothing to prevent the case proceeding to trial.

“We accept his criticisms of the way a contact was handled. A review will be conducted into this matter, and a protocol covering contact with non-legal representatives has been put in place.”

Beddoe ruled that the SFO’s dealings with Tinsley did not affect Akle during the investigation and that Tinsley did not break any rules.

The Ahsanis were not on trial in the Southwark case. Last year Cyrus Ahsani and his brother Saman pleaded guilty in a US court to conspiring to facilitate bribes on behalf of multinational firms to secure oil and gas contracts.

Stephen Whiteley, a Unaoil manager, was also convicted.

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