Across the Atlantic, stories continue to churn around the U.K. defense giant BAE Systems’ alleged payment of $2 billion in kickbacks over 20 years to Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former Saudi Ambassador to the United States, in a massive U.K.-Saudi arms deal in the 1980s. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s panel on bribery is scheduled today to inquire why the British government abruptly ended its Serious Fraud Office inquiry into BAE last year. And if that doesn’t provide enough grist for the story mill, later this month — and probably this week — U.K. Attorney General Lord Goldsmith will try to explain to parliament his role in the BAE scandal.
So why the comparative silence over here? After all, from 1983 to 2005 — during the period in which he allegedly received BAE’s bribes — Bandar was one of the most powerful individuals in Washington. And it was Riggs Bank, the collapsed, CIA-tied Washington financial powerhouse, where BAE allegedly sent money to Bandar, despite the sale proceeding from London and Riyadh. Finally, BAE is trying to purchase Armor Holdings, a leading U.S. defense firm that produces vehicle armor for Humvees and Strykers, putting a company allegedly involved in bribery in the regulatory crosshairs.
For starters, it’s not clear that the Justice Department in fact has opened an investigation into BAE. The U.K.’s Serious Fraud Office has reportedly accused BAE of bribery in six countries, which should be enough to prompt an inquiry into whether BAE is in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, a law banning companies that pay bribes from the U.S. market. The Los Angeles Times reported last week that an investigation has begun, but the Guardian reported yesterday only that the Justice Department is “on the verge” of investigating BAE. (DoJ hasn’t clarified matters to TPMmuckraker.) What’s more, even if the Justice Department does investigate BAE, that’s no guarantee that it can bring a case against the company — and thereby reveal details about Bandar’s role in the scandal.That leaves Congress. The Financial Times reported over the weekend that congressional staffers may take a new interest in the deal in light of the Serious Fraud Office inquiry in Britain. There’s no word yet about whether any congressional panel has opted to open its own inquiry into BAE, but the Bandar-related bribery accusations in the U.K. press might change that.
There’s another organization that might take up an inquiry, though this one is somewhat more of a longshot. The interagency Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States is reviewing BAE’s attempted purchase, and is reportedly close to finishing its standard 30-day review. But CFIUS — made famous in the Dubai Ports World scandal — doesn’t have a mandate to deal with bribery issues, only potential threats to national security, and so is unlikely to flag the deal for scandal, since BAE already does significant business with the Pentagon. It’s possible, though, that CFIUS might expand its investigation if congress shows serious interest in BAE or uncovers some further scandal. CFIUS representatives haven’t returned TPMmuckraker’s phone calls.
It’s worth mentioning that an investigation into BAE will hardly guarantee new revelations about Bandar. If the U.K.’s abandoned Serious Fraud Office probe is remotely on target, there’s a host of questions about BAE’s bribery trouble in any number of countries. But if anything is likely to expose more about Bandar’s alleged kickbacks, it’s one or more of these agencies — that is, if any of them opt to pull the trigger on a full-blown investigation that’s sure to be politically explosive.