Fairfax reported that ASIC chief Greg Medcraft told a Senate estimates committee last Friday that the watchdog began an inquiry earlier this year to probe Leighton Holdings and see if it was in breach of Australian foreign bribery laws and of the Corporation Act.
Medcraft reportedly explained that ASIC planned to use its coercive powers to quiz witnesses and suspects over allegations made last October that Leighton paid multi-million dollar kickbacks to win contracts overseas.
At the time, a Fairfax investigation discovered that former Leighton International boss David Savage had signed off on an alleged $42 million kickback to win a $750 million oil pipeline contract in Iraq in 2010.
The revelation last year cost Savage his seat on the board of UK engineering group Keller.
Other shady deals and potential bribes were also uncovered as part of the investigation, all of which are being investigated by the Australian Federal Police.
After questioning Medcraft on Friday, Labor Senator Sam Dastyari reportedly said the commission’s decision had been overdue and was a backflip following months of inaction.
“While the ASIC investigation is welcomed, it is coming two years too late,” Dastyari reportedly said.
“This should have begun in 2011 – not 2014.
“The allegations against Leighton are serious. It should not have taken ASIC being pursued by the media and politicians for this investigation to get underway.”
Last October, ASIC defended its choice not to investigate the bribery allegations against Leighton, claiming it was forced to wait until federal police referred the case to ASIC, or risk legal issues if it launched a parallel inquiry.
Medcraft reportedly told the Senate he knew time to investigate Leighton was running out.
ASIC only has six years from the date of an alleged corporate offence to begin a prosecution, leaving little time for the watchdog to conduct its probe.
Senior ASIC officer Chris Savaundra reportedly said the AFP's inquiry looked beyond allegations of foreign bribery to include an examination of whether any senior company officers had breached the Corporations Act.
“[The federal police] are looking at Corporations Act matters from a criminal perspective. We are looking at it from a civil perspective,” Savaundra said.
Leighton previously defended its integrity and said it was conducting an internal investigation of its international business.
It said it was also cooperating with the AFP.
The company this morning announced the appointment of a chief financial officer.
Contingent on visa approval, Javier Loizaga will take over from former CFO Peter Gregg, whose position was terminated last month following Hochtief’s majority takeover of Leighton Holdings.
Loizaga has 24 years of investment, finance, corporate advisory and business restructuring experience across a broad range of international markets and industries.
Most recently, he was the co-chairman and CEO of N+1 Mercapital, a Spanish investment firm with a strong presence in Latin America.
“As one of the most respected investment executives in Spain, Mr Loizaga will bring to Leighton his vast his experience in all aspects of corporate finance and financial management,” Leighton Holdings CEO Marcelino Fernandez said.
“A civil engineer by training, Mr Loizaga has both a thorough understanding of the operations of a large contracting company as well as proven expertise in financial management and corporate transformations.
“These skills will be valuable as we seek to more efficiently structure Leighton’s operations to the benefit of clients, employees and shareholders.”
Loizaga will report to Fernandez.