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US charges five in Rolls-Royce bribery probe

[WASHINGTON] The United States on Tuesday unveiled criminal charges against five people accused of involvement in a bribery scheme to help British defense giant Rolls-Royce win energy-related contracts in Kazakhstan.

The new charges - which have so far resulted in four guilty pleas - follow an US$800 million settlement the company reached in January with US, British and Brazilian authorities over allegations of corruption.

More than 40 advanced economies have criminalised paying bribes to foreign officials to win business but the crime is most frequently punished in the United States and Western Europe.

The US frequently asserts jurisdiction over corruption involving acts committed in the United States, tied to businesses that are based in the United States or whose shares are traded there.

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Kenneth Blanco, acting head of the US Justice Department's criminal division, said in a statement that the charges showed the US would hold individual people to account for corporate crimes, rather than merely seeking fines and settlements.

The case "represents another important step towards leveling the playing field for all ethical and honest businesses," he added.

Among those charged in court documents unsealed on Tuesday, Petros Contoguris of Greece, 70, stands accused of one count of conspiracy to violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, seven FCPA violations, conspiracy to launder money and 10 counts of money laundering.

Contoguris is believed to be at large outside the United States, according to the Justice Department.

Former senior Rolls-Royce executive James Finley, 66, of Britain and currently residing in Taiwan, had pleaded guilty to FCPA-related charges before a federal judge in July.

Rolls-Royce employees Aloysius Johannes Jozef Zuurhout of the Netherlands and Andreas Kohler of Austria, both 53, had likewise pleaded guilty in June.

Keith Barnett, 48, of Houston, Texas, had pleaded guilty in December of last year, according to the Justice Department.

Prosecutors say the five conspired to pay bribes to steer business to Rolls-Royce Energy Systems Inc, a US-based subsidiary of Britain's Rolls-Royce plc.

Court papers say the defendants used Contoguris's company to disguise bribes from Rolls-Royce to at least one foreign official as "commissions" in exchange for winning contracts with Asia Gas Pipeline LLP - part of an alleged conspiracy spanning from 1999 to 2013 that involved corrupt Rolls-Royce payments in a number of countries.

Asia Gas Pipeline had been created to build a pipeline between Central Asia and China and awarded Rolls-Royce a US$145 million contract in 2009.