(Bloomberg) — An insult-laden spat at a London pub that strained relations between U.S. and British law-enforcement agencies is at the center of a employment tribunal lawsuit against the U.K. Serious Fraud Office.
Tom Martin, an investigator at the SFO, was fired over the 2016 bust up after allegedly calling his counterpart at the FBI a four-letter word as a dispute widened over how to handle a joint probe into Unaoil SA. The SFO told a London court Tuesday that the incident exacerbated an already tense relationship between the two agencies.
“Relations with the Americans in 2016 were already poor,” Tony Osbaldiston, the former SFO official who led the disciplinary process for Martin, said in his testimony Tuesday. One of the reasons for the agents going for drinks was “to try to help patch up relations with them,” he said.
But Martin argues the fight was overblown as an excuse to fire him two years later. He said in the London lawsuit that his dismissal has had serious implications for his reputation and he’s been unable to find another job.
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The lawsuit is a rare glimpse into the interactions between law-enforcement officials on both sides of the Atlantic, which have often sparred over large investigations. An American, Lisa Osofsky, was hired to run the SFO in 2018 to strengthen the ties between the two groups.
One example of the differences was how to handle the investigation into Unaoil, which centered on allegations that the company bribed Iraqi officials for oil contracts. The U.K. wanted to prosecute members of the Ahsani family, which owned the company, but the U.S. Department of Justice may have undermined U.K. prosecutors by reaching a plea deal.
The SFO, a lawyer for Martin, the DOJ and the FBI all declined to comment on the case.
Two former company executives were convicted of bribery by a London jury in July. But the conviction was overshadowed by the judge’s criticism of the SFO’s handling of the investigation, particularly Osofsky and other SFO official’s contacts with David Tinsley, an American, who was working for the Ahsanis.
The judge in that case found no evidence that the SFO acted in bad faith. The SFO will commission an independent review into the matter after legal proceedings in the Unaoil case have concluded, the prosecutor said in an email.
Martin’s 2016 tiff with FBI agents followed an early meeting that also included the Australian Federal Police to develop a strategy.
The group of agents began the day at the American Embassy in London but moved onto the embassy bar and then a local pub, where it’s alleged that Martin called an FBI agent a four-letter word as well as a “spy” and a “quisling,” a British term for traitor.
Martin says he “probably” did call the FBI agent, Kevin Luebke, a “quisling,” but doesn’t recall or believe he called him the other names. He denies that his conduct amounted to gross misconduct.
‘Repair the Relationship’
A year later, in August 2017, the Department of Justice raised concerns to the SFO about relations between U.K. and U.S. enforcement agencies. In 2018, the SFO’s then interim director Mark Thompson flew to Washington to try to “repair the relationship with the U.S. authorities following some tensions,” the SFO said in court documents.
While there, the DOJ provided Thompson with a formal complaint against Martin regarding the 2016 incident, the SFO said, leading them to begin an internal investigation into Martin’s conduct.
Martin alleges that the complaint made against him by the U.S. was engineered by the DOJ and lawyers for Saman Ahsani, a Unaoil executive and member of the founding family.
Martin said the goal was remove him from the SFO case and “thwart the SFO’s extradition” of Ahsani, who had been arrested in Italy.
(Adds background on SFO Unaoil probe in eighth)
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