SFO head apologises for role in Unaoil case fiasco

The head of the UK Serious Fraud Office was forced to apologise over her role in a fiasco that contributed to three quashed convictions as the agency admitted it was struggling to fill one in four jobs.

In a grilling by MPs on the House of Commons justice select committee on Wednesday, Lisa Osofsky said she regretted allowing a suspect’s fixer to become embroiled in a long-running corruption probe at oil and gas consultancy Unaoil.

Last December, the Court of Appeal overturned the first of three convictions in the Unaoil case after ruling the agency had denied the convicted former oil and gas executive the right to a fair trial.

In its ruling, the SFO was castigated by the three appeal judges for allowing David Tinsley, a Miami-based investigator representing the founding family of Unaoil, to seek to influence the outcome of its probe. The agency had also failed to divulge the full detail of its contact with Tinsley to the defence, the judges ruled.

The ruling came just months after another SFO case collapsed when the judge ordered a halt to the trial of two former Serco executives because the agency had failed to hand some evidence to the defence.

Osofsky, a former FBI lawyer who took over as head of the SFO in August 2018, told MPs that she was “day three in the job” when she accepted the meeting with Tinsley. She said Tinsley “came highly recommended by the FBI and the US Department of Justice” but acknowledged that it was a “damaging relationship,” adding: “I appreciate and apologise for the fact that we had the meeting.” 

When asked by Sir Robert Neill, the Conservative chair of the committee, whether she had been “had over by Tinsley”, Osofsky replied that hindsight was “a wonderful thing” but concluded: “I’d say in some way we were.”

But Osofsky took exception to suggestions by the committee that contact with Tinsley was to blame for Unaoil fiasco and told them the reason the convictions were overturned “wasn’t the actual meeting [with Tinsley]” but was “due to disclosure failures.” 

Michelle Crotty, the SFO’s chief capability officer, told the committee the agency faced a £2.15mn bill to cover the legal costs of the first Unaoil executive who had his conviction quashed but did not have a figure for how much the agency would have to pay the other two individuals.

Crotty also told MPs during the hearing that the SFO was running at a permanent vacancy rate of between 20 to 25 per cent. She blamed this on the inability of the agency to match pay in the private sector and limited opportunities for career progression at the agency.

She said the agency believed it needed to reform pay “in order to . . . attract new recruits,” adding: “We are trying to backfill some of that [vacancy gap] with temporary staff . . . The growing cost of living and the salaries we offer are becoming an increasing challenge for us.”

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