Charges Dropped in Australian Wheat Scandal
The head of the Australian Federal Police made a bombshell announcement at the end of August, days before stepping down from a position he had held for eight years: no criminal charges would be laid against executives responsible for the country’s biggest trade scam ever.
The Australian Wheat Board (AWB), which until recently had a longstanding government-backed monopoly on the wheat trade, had been paying kickbacks to Iraq under the United Nations Oil-for-Food program. The purpose: to secure about 90 per cent of that lucrative market. Of the thousands of companies around the world that were involved in rorting the program, which ran between 1996-2003, AWB topped the list. It paid $A300 million ($US222 million at the time) in bribes, disguised as “trucking fees”. Now no one’s to blame – at least, not in Australia – but the stigma remains. Professional investigation, combining state-of-the-art skills like computer forensics and transactional analysis, could have picked this activity up quickly and nipped it in the bud, even if the culprits had cleverly covered their tracks.
Today, AWB Limited is an independent trader, without its earlier monopoly and without the 11 executives who tarnished its reputation. It wants to move on, but is dogged by the scandal. This latest development – arising out of legal advice from a senior Australian attorney who declared that, “the prospect of convictions was limited and ‘not in the national interest’” – only serves to exacerbate the situation. The Australian Government too, is left in the lurch, for it was the government of each supplying country that had promised the UN that it would scrutinise the bona fides and activities of each of the companies involved.
While the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, the nation’s corporate watchdog, still has its own investigation under way, legal experts doubt that it will now achieve much.
The scandal was the subject of a year-long official inquiry in Australia in 2006, to which the then prime minister, foreign minister and trade minister were called to give evidence. This followed the UN’s own inquiry, carried out by the former chairman of the US Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker, which found that the Oil-for-Food program had been corrupted by 2,200 firms in 66 countries. But it was Australia that turned out to be the largest supplier of illegal funds to Saddam Hussein’s regime. The Australian Government of the day was strongly criticised for keeping the terms of reference for that investigation so tight that they prevented a proper examination of the government’s own role.
It is for that reason that Australians who see accountability as pivotal to their working democracy, fear that a “no blame” outcome indicates an even dirtier story yet to be revealed. The word of any Australian Government, especially given to international bodies like the UN, has now been sullied by this “scandal with no conclusion”.
No one in the commercial world wants a burden like that on their shoulders. If your company is entering into any such deal, make sure you take the right precautions. A professional team of forensic investigators experienced in global operations and using state-of-the-art technology, can keep you ahead of the game. They can map out for you where danger lurks in these sorts of programs and ensure that you never unwittingly bring your country into disgrace. Computer forensics alone can often do the trick, without any of your staff needing to be personally interviewed.