Bomb detector case shows procurement fraud can be fatal

A fraudster was found guilty this week after selling millions of pounds worth of "bomb detection kits" that turned out to be totally ineffective. Indeed, they appear to have been little more than a car aerial and some bits of plastic. and were modelled on novelty gold-ball finders. The antenna was "no more a radio antenna than a nine-inch nail", according to one scientist.

Yet over £50 million worth were sold, many in Iraq, which, goodness knows, could have done with some real bomb detection. He even got some help from government, whilst whistle-blowers were ignored by politicians to whom they expressed their concern.  Here’s the Guardian:

Jim McCormick, 57, who was convicted at the Old Bailey on Tuesday of three counts of fraud, was trained at a "how to sell to the UN" seminar organised by UK Trade and Industry in March 2008. He also held meetings with officials at UK Trade & Investment, the export-promotion arm of the Department for Business.

The question for anyone looking at this, and perhaps even more so for procurement people, is how on earth he got away with it for so long? Why weren't the products tested properly - it can't be that difficult to see whether a piece of equipment can actually detect explosives? Amazingly, the equipment was still being used in some places even as McCormick stood trial.

The answer appears it be simple. The buying decisions weren't made on rational, objective grounds. They were made by people who were being bribed to buy the kit, people who didn't care about its effectiveness, but did care about the chance to make their own fortunes in countries beset by uncertainty and fear. For instance, General Jihad al-Jabiri, who ran the Baghdad bomb squad, is in prison on corruption charges relating to the contracts.

So next time we moan about European public sector procurement processes, rules and bureaucracy, or complain about how long it takes to get things done in government, just remember - that is a price we pay to make as sure as possible we don't have episodes like this.

But don't think "it couldn't happen here".  We wrote recently about the conflicts of interest emerging in UK health commissioning, and there is a certain percentage of people in every country who, if they see the opportunity to make money corruptly, with little chance of detection, will take it. So we need to keep our guard up at all times. And even with all our precautions, we can be sure that someone, somewhere is carrying out a procurement-related fraud in the UK public sector right now.

However, it probably won’t be related to dodgy bomb-detection equipment, thank goodness.

First Voice

  1. Peter Kobryn:

    An astonishing story made all the more shocking by the lives it put at risk …..and probably continues to do so

    Well made points about how conflicts of interest and the presence of people who look to take advantage should caution us against any complacency in more mundane procurement situations

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