Law firm Maurice Blackburn is considering widening a class action against construction major Leighton Holdings to take into account shareholder losses as a result of recent claims over corruption inside the company.
Maurice Blackburn on Wednesday pushed ahead with its long-awaited legal action against Leighton Holdings on behalf of 2000 shareholders. The action, filed in the Federal Court in Sydney, is designed to compensate shareholders after shares fell nearly 14 per cent in a single session when the company made more than $1.1 billion in shock write-downs nearly three years ago.
The latest action represents a fresh legal threat for Leighton, which was served with a separate class action this month in Victoria, in which the company was accused of falsely playing down its alleged involvement in corruption, leading to huge share price falls.
But the Maurice Blackburn claim alleges Leighton misled the market about its true financial position from at least August 16, 2010, until the disclosure on April 11, 2011. Maurice Blackburn claims the losses for shareholders could run into tens of millions of dollars.
Leighton had been struggling during 2010 with cost blowouts in a number of big-ticket infrastructure projects including Victoria's desalination plant and Brisbane's Airport Link. At the same time, losses were mounting in a construction joint venture in the Middle East.
As late as February 2011, Leighton had forecast a full-year net profit of $480 million, before stunning investors with a projected $427 million loss just two months later, triggered by the write-downs.
The claim alleges non-disclosure by Leighton as well as misleading and deceptive conduct by the construction company.
In a statement Leighton denied the claims and said it would "vigorously defend the class action".
Class action principal at Maurice Blackburn, Rebecca Gilsenan, said the law firm had been investigating Leighton since 2011. A claim had been ready to file in May, but Leighton and the law firm had begun talks over a possible settlement. "We are still trying to work with them around settlement, but it was time to file the claim," Ms Gilsenan said.
"Our clients were keen that things progress."
She said the 2000 clients behind the action range from retail shareholders to large institutional shareholders with significant holdings.
The Maurice Blackburn claim does not include any allegations of corrupt conduct.
However Ms Gilsenan said the law firm had been instructed by shareholders to investigate a potential claim around corrupt conduct. This would take several weeks to to determine if there was a sound claim.
Stories published by Fairfax Media this month revealed allegations that the firm's international operations in Asia and the Middle East were "rife with corruption, bribery and malfeasance", and its directors oversaw a "dramatic failure in governance" that enabled corruption.
The reports come two years after Leighton alerted authorities it may have breached foreign bribery laws in Iraq, a matter under investigation by the Australian Federal Police.
Leighton has said it is co-operating with the AFP's investigation into the Iraq matter and its directors had acted with appropriate care and diligence at all times.