THE United Kingdom’s serious fraud office (SFO) says it is looking into a possible violation of corruption laws by mining giant BHP Billiton after the company announced last week that it was conducting an internal inquiry in a case that may be linked to a Cambodian mining concession.
David Jones, a spokesman for the SFO, said Sunday that BHP had been “cooperative” in coming forward with information about the potential offences, and that the SFO had not yet decided whether to launch a formal investigation.
BHP said last week that following a request for information from the United States securities and exchange commission, it had discovered “possible violations of applicable anti-corruption laws involving interactions with government officials”.
Though BHP has yet to identify the project at the centre of the inquiry, the Financial Times reported last week that “a person close to BHP” said the probe was focused on a mining concession in Mondulkiri province. BHP acquired rights to the concession in 2006 before abandoning it last year.
Observers have suggested that Cambodia may be involved in the investigation in part because of a statement in 2007 by Minister of Water Resources Lim Kean Hor that BHP had paid US$2.5 million in “tea money”, or unofficial fees, for rights to the Mondulkiri site.
In 2008, BHP told the watchdog group Global Witness that aside from the $1 million paid in the official concession agreement, it had given $2.5 million to a “social development fund” for projects in Mondulkiri by groups such as the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS).
WCS country director Mark Gately confirmed Sunday that his organisation had received $24,000 from BHP in 2008. However, the bulk of the $1 million payment from the formal concession agreement is not accounted for in government figures, according to Global Witness.
Officials from the Ministry of Water Resources and the Ministry of Industry, Mines and Energy could not be reached for comment.