By Kirstin Ridley
LONDON (Reuters) - A London lawsuit brought against the UK's Serious Fraud Office (SFO) by ENRC, a mining company at the centre of an eight-year corruption investigation, lacks evidence and should never have been brought, a lawyer for the agency told a court on Wednesday.
Simon Colton told London's High Court that ENRC may now regret sharing information with prosecutors as it sought to avoid a criminal investigation by committing to being open and transparent about an internal inquiry around seven years ago.
"But a change of policy and regret do not justify the present claim," he said, as the SFO began its defence in the high-profile trial, which is scheduled to run for 11 weeks.
The SFO opened an investigation into ENRC in 2013 over allegations of fraud, bribery and corruption relating to the acquisition of mineral assets in Africa. The investigation is still open, but no charges have been filed against the company or current or former employees.
ENRC is seeking public vindication and multi-million pound damages.
It alleges that former Dechert lawyer Neil Gerrard, hired in 2010 to carry out an internal investigation following a whistleblowing report, conspired with SFO contacts to damage his client, expand or prolong his own brief to increase his fees and leaked privileged and sensitive material.
A lawyer for Dechert and Gerrard has dismissed the allegations, saying ENRC misrepresented documents and events, took little account of probability and leapt from suspicion to accusation.
ENRC, which was co-founded by three billionaire Kazakh businessmen and the Kazakh government, also accuses the SFO of misfeasance in public office.
It alleges that the agency knew Gerrard was passing on sensitive information without authority, but incited and encouraged him in an effort to clinch a high-profile corporate settlement or prosecution.
Colton said ENRC had levelled "the most serious allegations" against seven senior SFO officers and was seeking to cast its net wider because its case only made sense if there had been a "conspiracy of silence".
Nicholas Purnell, a lawyer for Dechert, said earlier that senior ENRC management had both authorised and understood the need for Gerrard to make disclosures to the SFO to ward off the possibility of a raid, although some within ENRC had disagreed.
(Reporting by Kirstin Ridley; Editing by Alexander Smith)