Acres expects acquittal in bribery trial

John Saunders
Globe and Mail
June 6, 2002

Acres International Ltd., one of Canada’s best-known engineering firms, says it believes it will be acquitted of bribery in the African kingdom of Lesotho even though the official it is accused of bribing was convicted.

Acres issued a statement yesterday saying that no new evidence has emerged since the World Bank completed its own investigation into the charges earlier this year and refrained from putting it on a list of firms barred from bank-financed work.

Masupha Sole, former head of a vast water-diversion project in Lesotho’s mountains, was sentenced to 18 years in prison in Lesotho High Court on Tuesday after being found guilty of taking more than $1-million in bribes from foreign contractors, including Acres.

That verdict does not bind the court in a mirror-image trial in which the Oakville, Ont., firm is charged with bribing Mr. Sole. The prosecution and defence have presented their evidence, and closing arguments are to start June 26.

A central question in the case is whether Acres knew that part of the money it paid its local agent in Lesotho was being passed to Mr. Sole. The agent, an engineer named Zalisiwonga Bam, has since died.

The prosecution says that Mr. Bam was paid about $720,000 of which Mr. Sole received about $400,000. Acres replies that Mr. Bam’s fees were modest, covering a period of about 10 years, and it never intended him to share them with anyone.

Lesotho is a famine-racked nation of two million surrounded by South African territory. From 1986 to 1995, Mr. Sole headed the Lesotho Highlands Water Project, a system of dams and tunnels to generate electricity and divert water to South Africa. Acres has done about $21-million worth of work on it.

The project is backed by the Washington-based World Bank, a 183-country lending agency that has blacklisted scores of companies and individuals since 1999 in an anti-corruption campaign.

After its Lesotho investigation, the bank barred a French middleman and three of his firms from bank-financed projects. It found insufficient evidence to bar Acres and other contractors.

In yesterday’s statement, Acres said the bank has had access to all of the evidence and witnesses available to the Lesotho prosecution.

“In fact, Acres voluntarily disclosed thousands of pages of internal documents to the World Bank’s investigator that it was not legally required to disclose to the prosecution, although we understand that the bank made those documents available to the prosecution as well,” it said.

It argued that the bank’s investigation was tougher than a trial because the bank applied a comparatively loose standard of proof based on a balance of probabilities. Lesotho’s criminal law, like Canada’s, requires proof beyond reasonable doubt.

The bank “concluded that there was insufficient evidence to convict Acres,” the firm said.

“This conclusion has the same legal meaning as a not-guilty decision in a criminal trial. Since nothing new came out in the Acres’ Lesotho trial, we do not believe that a fair court could come to any different conclusion than the World Bank’s sanctions committee.”

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