Africa

Bribe exposure

Jonathan Rugman
Channel 4 TV News
May 20, 2002

A historic decision: a court in Lesotho has convicted an African official of taking bribes from international construction firms- including at least one British company.

Next in the firing line will be the firms themselves. No British company has ever been prosecuted here for giving bribes in return for work in Africa, but this tiny kingdom has taken the law into its own hands and intends to press charges against them.

From the air the Katse dam is breathtaking.

Funded by the world bank its the biggest dam in Africa, but according to a historic verdict today the man in charge of building this and other dams took bribes of around three quarters of a million pounds.

He’s Musephe Sole – once head of Lesotho’s dam building programme.

Prosecutors unearthed a paper trail of payments to Mr Sole’s Swiss bank accounts, from multinational joint ventures, ventures which included three British construction firms.

Two-years ago a judge gave Channel 4 News exclusive access to a bribery trial. The man in the dock told us he was innocent.

In the high court of the former British colony today, the Judge Mr Justice Cullinan found Mr Sole guilty of receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars from a consortium which includes the construction firm Kier International of Bedfordshire.

A key witness called by this man, the prosecutor was an accountant who investigated an apparent link between the consortium – known as the Highlands Water Venture – and Mr Sole’s Swiss bank accounts.

The intermediary was Jacob du Ploy who faces his own criminal trial later this year and who refused to answer my questions when court hearings first began.

But it wasn’t just the consortium known as the Highlands Water Venture.

which made suspicious payments. Today the judge also found Musepha Sole guilty of taking tens of thousands of pounds from a joint venture including one of the best known names of British construction, Balfour Beatty – whose work in Lesotho was backed by EU grants and underwritten by British taxpayers.

The court was told by one of Musepha Sole’s project managers that in 1993 a consortium including Balfour Beatty had been chosen for a building project even though a rival bid appeared to be cheaper.

The prosecution alleged that this consortium paid over a million pounds to a middleman who then paid Musepha Sole money, in exchange for valuable contracts.

Today the judge found Sole guilty of taking at least thirty thousand pounds in bribes from this consortium. All the money was paid through another middleman – a Frenchman named Max Cohen, who failed to turn up in court.

Among Max Cohen’s other clients in Lesotho, the British engineering consultants Sir Alexander Gibb, now known as Jacobs Gibb and based in Reading.

The court heard that on 28th December 1990 Gibb paid £22,000 pounds to Max Cohen’s company registered in Panama. Within a week, Mr Cohen passed on a bribe of £20,000 to one of Mr Sole’s Swiss bank accounts, the judge concluded today.

The World Bank told channel 4 News this afternoon from Washington that it had banned Mr Cohen from all future contracts. But the Bank also funded Gibb in Lesotho and its spokeswoman says it will investigate the possibility of a ban on the British company.

Jacobs Gibb told us they had “no comment” to make on legal proceedings. Balfour Beatty also said they had “no comment.” While Kier International told us that “there are no legal actions actual or pending against either the joint venture or Kier International.”

But in a statement to this programme today Lesotho’s Attorney General said: “It is still open to the Crown to charge the individual partners…no final decision has yet been made.”

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