AUSTRALIAN mining giant BHP Billiton told a business ethics forum on Wednesday that an investigation into irregular payments would give the company an opportunity to formulate a more “consistent” and “robust” framework for conducting ethical business in developing countries.
BHP is currently under investigation by the US securities and exchange commission (SEC) for possible violations of anticorruption laws widely believed to be linked to a Cambodian mining concession. The firm has also launched its own internal investigation.
“As unsettling as allegations of misconduct can be, the key task for us is to face them squarely, determine what happened and, if misconduct did occur or shortcomings are found, take the steps needed to prevent similar problems in future,” Karen Wood, BHP’s group executive and chief people officer, told a meeting of the Committee for the Economic Development of Australia in Melbourne.
“Overall, situations like this can provide the learnings necessary to do what we do, better.”
BHP has thus far declined to identify the project at the centre of its probe. Reports have focused on the firm’s past operations in Cambodia in part because of comments made by Minister of Water Resources and Meteorology Lim Kean Hor, who told the National Assembly in 2007 that BHP had secured rights to a concession in Mondulkiri province by paying US$2.5 million in under-the-table “tea money”.
In an April speech, Prime Minister Hun Sen rejected claims that BHP had engaged in corruption in Cambodia, saying that the $2.5 million went to supporting local development projects. “This is in the contract – it is not money under the table,” he said.
The firm pulled out of Cambodia last year after it deemed the Mondulkiri concession not worth developing.
In her address Wednesday, Wood said the company was “committed to ensuring we meet the SEC’s expectations with regard to their inquiries”, but said she could not comment on the scope, duration or likely outcome” of the probe.
BHP spokeswoman Fiona Martin also declined to comment on the investigation, referring to earlier comments that the firm “is cooperating with the relevant authorities, including conducting an internal investigation, which is continuing”.