Business titan Wal King has rejected claims in a Fairfax investigation today that he was aware of cases of bribery and fraud as the chief executive of Leighton Holdings. And the company itself — “deeply concerned” about the report — has issued a lengthy statement denying a culture of corruption and cover-ups.

But perhaps the more damning allegations contained in Nick McKenzie and Richard Baker’s eye-opening report are directed at Australia’s corporate watchdog. The pair state:

“Another key factor impeding full exposure of the corporate scandal is the apparent failure of the corporate watchdog, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, to conduct rigorous investigations in the two years since Leighton alerted federal police that it may have breached foreign bribery laws in Iraq.

“ASIC has spoken to no witnesses or suspects, despite witnesses telling federal police they had grave concerns about corporate offences in the company.

“Key Leighton witnesses and whistleblowers, including former top Leighton executive Stephen Sasse, told Fairfax Media on Wednesday that ASIC and the federal police appeared unable to adequately respond to the breadth of issues engulfing Leighton.”

Certainly not for the first time, ASIC has been exposed as wholly inadequate to regulate and prosecute dodgy practices at the highest levels of Australian business. Even when the regulator was expressly told about alleged corruption — apparently ASIC is now reduced to working on an honour system — it failed to act.

So is Australia’s corporate regulator so horribly under-resourced it’s unable to investigate evidence of corruption served up on a silver platter? ASIC had a budget cut in 2012, but this year’s budget restored that funding to earlier levels. Is management of ASIC simply too incompetent?

They’re important questions for the integrity of our corporate landscape.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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