High-level employees from British American Tobacco’s U.K. headquarters oversaw a corporate espionage ring in South Africa, buying expensive surveillance equipment that was later used to illegally spy on the company’s competitors, leaked documents show.
Allegations that British American Tobacco’s (BAT) South African unit had bribed law enforcement agents to disrupt its competitors’ operations hit headlines in 2016, but no one has been convicted in relation to the claims.
Now, analysis of confidential documents seen by OCCRP and its partners reveal in fresh detail how the operation worked, including a previously unknown level of involvement from the tobacco giant’s London headquarters.
The material, collated from industry and government sources, shows BAT officials from London received regular reports on the spy ring, participated in planning, and spent tens of thousands of dollars on equipment that was used for illegal surveillance.
In total, BAT signed off on $42.6 million for surveillance between 2012 and 2016, the documents show.
One of the companies targeted, Carnilinx, filed civil charges against the tobacco giant in 2014 after finding a tracking device on one of its vehicles that it believed could be traced back to a security firm contracted by BAT. The civil case was dismissed by a South African court on a technicality, with the judge noting that the outcome shouldn’t be seen as a vindication of the tobacco giant. A criminal case against BAT, which was filed later, is still making its way through the courts.
The scandal left in its wake a revenue agency shaken to its core, and caused a rift of distrust between law enforcement agencies in South Africa.
“Authorities in South Africa have known of BAT’s corporate espionage ring for years. The evidence has always been there, yet nothing has come of it,” said Johann van Loggerenberg, a former executive with the South African Revenue Service who was also a witness in the case.
“There need to be penalties for this kind of behavior or corruption will only continue to flourish.”
BAT disputed the fresh revelations, saying its programs in South Africa were intended to fight cigarette smuggling by providing support to law enforcement, including “intelligence on suspected illicit operators.”
“We emphatically reject the mischaracterisation of our conduct by some media outlets,” the company said in a statement to OCCRP’s partners, BBC Panorama, Bath University’s Tobacco Control Research Group, and The Bureau of Investigative Journalism. BAT U.K. declined to respond to OCCRP’s own questions.
BAT has faced similar allegations elsewhere in Africa. The U.K.’s Serious Fraud Office dropped a related investigation earlier this year that focused on alleged corruption in BAT’s East African business, saying its findings “did not meet the evidential test for prosecution,” which requires cases to be “in the public interest” as well as provable in court.
The tobacco company referenced the investigation in its statement to OCCRP’s partners.
“In 2016 BAT made public that it was investigating allegations of misconduct and was liaising with the U.K. Serious Fraud Office (SFO). BAT fully cooperated with the SFO’s subsequent investigation, which included allegations relating to South Africa,” the company wrote.
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by Telita Snyckers, October 1, 2021, published on OCCRP