The Australian central bank's note-printing units and six people including former managers have been charged with bribing officials in Malaysia, Indonesia and Vietnam to win currency contracts.
Securency International Pty and Note Printing Australia Ltd. were charged over alleged payments to foreign public officials between 1999 and 2005, the Australian Federal Police said in a statement on its website. The Reserve Bank of Australia, which owns NPA and 50 percent of Securency, said in a statement it condemns corrupt behavior of any kind and no one at the bank has been accused of wrongdoing.
Friday's arrests are the first under Australia's decade-old foreign bribery laws and coincided with related bribery charges against two individuals in Malaysia by that nation's Attorney-General's Chambers following an investigation by the country's anti-corruption commission, the AFP said. The RBA said in November last year that it will sell its stake in Securency.
"It's clearly embarrassing for the Reserve Bank, but I think the market would make a clear distinction" between their monetary policy and note printing functions, said Nigel Stapledon, a former Treasury and Westpac Banking Corp. economist who lectures at the University of New South Wales' school of business in Sydney. "I don't think that it's going to have any material effect on people's judgment of their performance on monetary policy, which is more critical."
Australian Assistant Treasurer Bill Shorten, speaking after the announcement, told reporters in Melbourne that he has "full confidence in the Reserve Bank of Australia."
Governor Glenn Stevens said after the announcement that "the Reserve Bank condemns in the strongest terms corrupt or questionable behavior of any kind."
"Companies associated with the Reserve Bank and their staff must, like the bank itself, meet the highest standards of integrity and fully comply with the law," Stevens said in an e- mailed statement.
Police said Friday a team of up to 20 officers had worked on the investigation, resulting in charges against six men from the state of Victoria aged between 50 and 66. The six men appeared in a Melbourne magistrate's court Friday.
The charges carry a maximum penalty of 10 years in jail and/or a fine of A$1.1 million ($1.2 million), AFP's statement said.
"This sends a very clear message to corporate Australia that the AFP will diligently chase and enforce the laws on foreign bribery," said Chris McDevitt, AFP manager special references commander, in a press conference Friday in Melbourne.
The AFP will allege that during the period 1999-2005, senior managers from Securency and NPA utilized international sales agents to bribe foreign public officials in order to secure banknote contracts, according to Friday's statement.
Malaysia's Attorney-General Gani Patail said his department is cooperating with colleagues in Australia and Bank Negara Malaysia, the nation's central bank.
The Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission has charged Mohamad Daud Dol Moin, a former assistant central bank governor, for allegedly accepting a 100,000 ringgit ($33,000) bribe related to a contract to print polymer bank notes, the commission said in an e-mailed statement Friday from Kuala Lumpur. Collin Goonting, a lawyer for Mohamad Daud, said in a telephone interview his client pleaded not guilty.
The AFP said it will allege that in Vietnam a foreign official received a bribe paid in the form of a university scholarship to secure a banknote contract on behalf of Securency, the statement said.
Vietnam will consider the case "seriously and objectively," Pham Anh Tuan, deputy chief of the secretariat of the Office of the Anti-Corruption Steering Committee said by phone from Hanoi Friday.
The AFP statement said the charges brought against the companies are "not a reflection that individual board members were complicit or had knowledge of any illegal activity."
Australian central bank Governor Stevens said the RBA "deeply regrets that the governance arrangements and processes in the companies at that time were not able to prevent or detect the alleged behavior that has led to today's charges."
Securency Chairman Bob Rankin said in an e-mailed statement that the company is "considering its legal position." Since it became aware of the allegations in May 2009, Securency's board has taken steps to ensure compliance with ethical business practices, the statement said.
Securency is in talks with potential buyers, Managing Director Philippe Etienne said in a phone interview Friday.
"The business is currently in a divestment process," he said. "I don't expect the RBA to be shareholder in the medium term."
Formed in 1996, Securency is a joint venture between the RBA and Innovia Films, and supplies materials used in the printing of banknotes and security documents, according to Securency's website. NPA, fully owned by the RBA, printed Australia's first polymer banknote in 1988, while Innovia Films produces the base material that's been used in bank notes issued in 31 nations, including Malaysia, Vietnam and Indonesia, the website says.
The RBA's share of Securency's profit before income tax in 2009-10 was A$9.5 million, according to the central bank's 2010 annual report. NPA earned a profit after tax of A$4.3 million in 2009-10.
Michael Ahrens, spokesman at Transparency International Australia, a group that has lobbied governments for tougher anti-corruption laws, said Friday's charges are "a test case."
The Australian foreign bribery law isn't as good as legislation in the US or the UK, where a new law comes into effect Friday, because it sets the bar too high to win convictions, Ahrens said. Civil prosecutions, such as those available in the US and UK, require only that the weight of the evidence tip in favor of the prosecutors to win a conviction.
In Australia, prosecutors must prove their case beyond a reasonable doubt, Ahrens said. "We need to adopt a more modern piece of legislation," he said. "There are too many hurdles, it's too technical." He said he was surprised police laid charges, even after a two-year probe.
"I was doubtful they would be willing to take the plunge," he said.