Society & Success

Julie Adell-Owino fights to clear her name after corruption claims at BAT


Julie Adell-Owino’s exit from her plum job as East African Breweries Ltd’s (EABL) group corporate affairs director was as swift as her disappearance from the company’s website and social media pages Twitter and LinkedIn.

A few days ago , little was known of Ms Adell-Owino, save for those in the corporate scene. It was a BBC exposé that put a spotlight on the 46-year-old, pushing her onto the front pages of newspapers and blogs alongside politician Moses Wetang’ula.

The 46-year-old, whose maiden name is Adell Ardeller Julie Opon, was Monday night mentioned in a BBC exposé as having facilitated payment of bribes to several Kenyan officials during her stint as British American Tobacco (BAT) Kenya’s head of regulatory affairs.

By close of business Tuesday, she had resigned from her job of five months and deleted her Twitter and LinkedIn profiles in an attempt to keep people off her personal and professional track.

EABL, which in June described Julie as an experienced corporate affairs, policy and regulation specialist, was at the same time editing her out of the management list on its website.

“I was not party to any alleged unlawful payments made during the period of my employment at BAT,” Ms Adell-Owino said in a statement issued a few hours after she resigned from EABL.

“I had no such alleged discussions with any public official neither did I issue any of the alleged instructions to any party to make such payments.”

At 7:36pm Tuesday, EABL issued an unsigned one-liner statement confirming her exit from the company.

While Ms Adell-Owino’s online presence thinned in a matter of hours, the BBC claims it holds a heap of evidence, including paper-trail proving she greased the palms of high ranking officials in order to sway policy in BAT’s favour and smother competitors.

For instance, leaked documents allege that she, in a July 2012 e-mail, requested the purchase of a business class plane ticket to London for Mr Wetang’ula who was then the Trade minister.

Ms Adell-Owino, a lawyer, was at the time BAT’s head of regulatory affairs for East and Central Africa. Her territory covered 17 countries including those in the East African Community, the Horn of Africa, the Indian Ocean Islands and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The 29-minute-long BBC Panorama exposé states that Ms Adell-Owino, whom they describe as BAT’s chief lobbyist, instructed that Mr Wetangula be hosted at Globe House, the multinational’s London headquarters.

The former senior official at the Kenya Anti-Corruption Commission allegedly ordered that this act of transnational hospitality be facilitated in a “paperless” manner and that there should be “no receipts if any in his name”.

Besides the payment, which BAT later described as “unlawful bribes”, Ms Adell-Owino is said to have arranged bribes amounting to $26,000 (Sh2.6 million) for three public officials in Rwanda, Burundi and the Comoros Islands.

These illicit disbursements were made to sidetrack attempts by the UN to decrease the number of tobacco-related deaths.

The UN was seeking to introduce measures that cut supply and demand of addictive cigarette sticks, including slapping higher taxes on cigarettes, banning of smoking in public, public education and introducing restrictions on tobacco advertising and sponsorship.

BBC’s investigative documentary is anchored on information provided by Paul Hopkins, a former Irish army man who worked at BAT Kenya for 13 years and who has now turned whistleblower.

“We are disappointed that the BBC has broadcast historic allegations from 2012 made by rogue former employees whose employment was terminated in acrimonious circumstances and who have a clear vendetta against us,” said BAT in a statement.

Ms Adell-Owino’s journey up the rungs of the high stakes (but now murky and unforgiving) corporate world has been steady, starting off in litigation and then in public office.

The mother of three – a son and two daughters – pursued her secondary education at Loreto High School Limuru and later joined the University of Nairobi to study law.

She completed her university degree in 1990, was admitted to the bar two years later and proceeded to private practice, litigating both criminal and commercial cases.

The Law Society of Kenya (LSK) advocates roll lists her as Adell Ardeller Julie Opon of number P.105/2370/92.

The lawyers’ body indicates that her practising status has been inactive since 1999, the year she quit private practice and changed her work address to Integrity Centre.

Ms Adell-Owino has also worked at the Kenya Wildlife Service and for consulting firm PricewaterhouseCoopers.

She joined BAT in 2007 and worked there for five years, a period during which she is alleged to have committed the crimes. Upon leaving the multinational cigarette maker in September 2012, she became the managing director of Jumon Africa Business Solution, a management consulting company she co-owns with her husband.

She held this job until June this year when she was appointed to head the corporate department at EABL, replacing Brenda Mbathi who jumped ship to General Electric.

Individuals who have worked with her over the past five months told the Business Daily that Ms Adell-Owino was a “thorough, humble, charismatic and hardworking” manager.

Her humility, however, did not restrain her from “bluntly” criticising individuals who failed to do whatever task had been asked of them.

“In every career position that I have held, my integrity has stood up to scrutiny both during my recruitment and in day-to-day delivery of my job,” said Ms Adell-Owino in her statement.

“I would like to highlight that the allegation is based on an alleged pseudo e-mail whose integrity cannot be authenticated and reiterate that I was not involved.”

While both BAT and Ms Adell-Owino opine that the Mr Hopkins’ allegations lack veracity, it is not lost on the keen eye that the multinational is dealing with the fruits of a model it has championed at its firm.

BAT’s standards of business conduct contain a whistleblowing policy which, according to its 2014 annual report, enables staff, in confidence, to raise concerns without fear of reprisal. The standards require all staff to act “with high standards of business integrity, comply with applicable laws and regulations and ensure that standards are never compromised for the sake of results.”

Last year, BAT employees around the world reported 42 business conduct breaches up from the previous year’s 18, with management explaining the jump to “increased awareness training.”

While Mr Hopkins is no longer at BAT, and cognisant of the fact that his motivations are under scrutiny, his whistleblowing act has nonetheless lit a bonfire under the seats of the cigarette firm, Ms Adell-Owino and Mr Wetangula.

Ms Adell-Owino has engaged her lawyers to help clear her name as has the cigarette maker.

Mr Wetang’ula on Wednesday threatened to sue BBC if they do not “apologise and admit liability”, adding that he was “shocked and upset by the bribery rumours”.