Now this will test the guts of the ASX and ASIC to enforce the continuous disclosure rules on listed Australian companies.

It’s all fine querying small and medium companies about the timeliness of announcements and disclosures, but now that we have our biggest company and the world’s biggest resources group, BHP, bang to rights on a woeful job of disclosure, with  two paragraphs yesterday disclosing a possible involvement in corruption.

The short BHP statement read:

“Following requests for information from the US Securities and Exchange Commission as a part of an investigation relating primarily to certain terminated minerals exploration projects, the company has disclosed to relevant authorities evidence that it has uncovered regarding possible violations of applicable anti-corruption laws involving interactions with government officials.

“Accordingly, the company is cooperating with the relevant authorities including conducting an internal investigation, which is continuing. It is not possible at this time to predict the scope or duration of the investigation or its likely outcome.”

BHP then said in a separate statement to newsagencies (at least Reuters), yesterday that “we can confirm that the SEC’s requests for information primarily relate to certain terminated minerals exploration projects and not any activity in China, BHP Billiton’s marketing activities or the sale of any of the company’s products”.

That was more than had been disclosed through the proper channels to the market.

But it only took a few hours of briefings and whisperings to the Melbourne business media for the wider story to appear, as the Fairfax business media reported today and The Australian.

Not all the media were on the drip from BHP. The Australian Financial Review didn’t have the suggested amount of $US2.7 million, or that it involved Cambodia. Nor did other parts of the News Ltd empire, such as the Daily Telegraph.

All in all it was very selective to the likes of Fairfax’s Barry Fitzgerald and Malcolm Maiden and The Australian’s Matt Chambers and Matthew Stevens (who is married to BHP flack Samantha Evans, now on maternity leave, as Crikey reported recently).

These journos though can’t be criticised, they did their work, it’s BHP that can be taken to task.

Stevens rightly pointed out that BHP now joined Rio Tinto  and “risks being sucked into the same murky territory that Rio has stalked since the arrest of the Rio Tinto four” (Stern Hu and his three work colleagues).

Maiden revealed that BHP knew of the problem as far back as August 2009. And he bagged them for being sluggish, even though BHP claimed it had legal advice that it didn’t need to disclose. So what.

Disclosure isn’t just about whether events are “material”, doesn’t BHP think that possible damage to its reputation and standing from a statement where only a few words mattered, “anti-corruption laws” and “violations”? The statement was certainly “material” reputationally to BHP.

Only a thick-headed company would not see that. And it happened while Don Argus (Don’t Argue) was chairman.

ASIC and the ASX should force BHP to reveal all board briefings and advice on the disclosure, including the minutes of any relevant board meetings where this was discussed.

Financial disclosure problems are easy to overcome, reputational damage is harder.

In some ways this could do as much damage to BHP’s reputation and image that the charges against Goldman Sachs could do its standing.

Handle this badly and some of the mud will remain, no matter how much is spent trying to wash it away.

This is now the second time BHP has been mentioned in regards to corrupt or possible corrupt activities in the past decade: the first was during the AWB scandal.

Both occurred under Argus; that needs some elaboration.

Peter Fray

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