Richard Baker and Nick McKenzie June 06, 2011
THE Reserve Bank firm Securency hired a company owned by a close relative of Malaysia's Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister - the two men with whom the Gillard government is negotiating to swap asylum seekers - to help win banknote contracts.
The revelation comes amid growing sensitivity within the federal government about the Australian Federal Police investigation of Securency and the potential for Australia's international relations to be harmed if foreign officials allegedly linked to the RBA firm's bribes are named.
The Age has learned that Securency signed Kuala Lumpur firm Liberal Technology as its Malaysian agent in 2009. The biggest individual shareholder in Liberal Technology is businessman Haris Onn Hussein.
Haris Onn Hussein is well connected - his cousin is the Prime Minister of Malaysia, Najib Razak, and his brother is Home Affairs Minister Hishammuddin Tun Hussein, who is expected in Canberra soon to sign the deal under which Australia will transfer 800 asylum seekers to Malaysia and accept 4000 refugees in return.
Securency hired Haris Onn Hussein in the hope he would offer it access to, and influence over, Malaysia's top politicians.
It is a common in parts of Asia for the relatives of politicians to be hired by foreign companies as agents.
The Age understands that some officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and other agencies are keen for the AFP not to identify certain foreign dignitaries or their relatives who are alleged to be linked to Securency in order to protect Australia's broader overseas interests.
Securency, half-owned and supervised by the Reserve Bank, has for two years been investigated by the AFP and the British Serious Fraud Office for allegedly bribing public officials in Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia and Nigeria to win banknote supply contracts.
Under Australian law, it is a criminal offence for a company or individual to pay, or offer a benefit to, a foreign government official or their close relatives to obtain a business advantage.
Australia is yet to prosecute a foreign bribery case, but Securency - which has four RBA-appointed directors on its board - may be the first, given the two-year AFP investigation and the arrest and questioning of some employees and agents last year. No charges have yet been laid.
Haris Onn Hussein and Hishammuddin Tun Hussein are political royalty in Malaysia. Their father, the late Tun Hussein Onn, was Malaysia's prime minister between 1976 and 1981. He was succeeded as prime minister by Mahathir Mohamad. Their grandfather, Dato Onn Jaafar, was the founder of Malaysia's ruling United Malays National Organisation political party.
Hishammuddin Tun Hussein is vice president of UMNO.
Haris Onn Hussein owns shares in or sits on the board of several companies that have benefited from Malaysian government concessions.
In 2006, the Malaysian finance ministry told cigarette and alcohol manufacturers that they would need to buy security labels provided by Haris Onn Hussein’s Liberal Technology to legally sell their products. Haris Onn Hussein is also associated with a company given a 34-year concession to operate a major Malaysian toll road.
Under Securency’s corporate structure, its board should have been informed and approved of Mr Haris Onn’s company being signed as an agent.
The Age can also reveal Securency engaged Malaysian state MP and a former UMNO branch treasurer, Dato Abdullah Hasnan Kamaruddin, as another agent. Mr Kamaruddin was the UNMO party treasurer in Dr Mahatir’s home state of Kedah, a position that gave him substantial influence.
Despite engaging the extremely well-connected Liberal Technology as agent in 2009, Securency is believed not to have won any further banknote supply contracts.
The company won its last major Malaysian contract in 2004. At that time, Mr Razak was the country’s defence minister and Hishammuddin Tun Hussein the education minister. It also won a smaller contract in 1998.
The Age is not suggesting Mr Razak nor Hishammuddin Tun Hussein were involved in Securency’s deals.
The company’s 1998 and 2004 contracts involved another Malaysian agent, businessman, arms broker and former UMNO official, Abdul Kayum Syed Ahmad.
He has since been arrested and questioned by Malaysia’s Anti-Corruption Commission over the Securency deals and his use of commissions paid by the RBA firms.
The AFP began investigating Securency in May 2009 after The Age revealed its payment of tens-of-millions-of-dollars in commissions to politically connected middlemen to win contracts in Nigeria, Vietnam and India.
The company wired millions of dollars into tax haven bank accounts in an effort to conceal the beneficiaries of its payments in an apparent breach of the RBA’s rules.
The AFP and Britain's Serious Fraud Office have conducted several raids on the offices of Securency and its British half-owner, Innovia Films. Properties owned by serving and former executives and agents have been raided and several arrests made. No charges have been laid yet.
Securency’s managing director, Myles Curtis, and chief financial officer, John Ellery, were forced out of the company in March last year. Securency’s deputy chairman, English businessman Bill Lowther, resigned in October following his arrest by the Serious Fraud Office.
RBA governor Glenn Stevens has defended his bank’s appointees who have chaired and sat on the Securency board since 1996, telling a federal parliamentary committee in November that he had not seen any evidence to suggest they had acted inappropriately.
The RBA plans to sell Securency.