The UK Serious Fraud Office had pursued a corruption case against three Unaoil associates relating to oil infrastructure upgrades in the country
Two former Unaoil executives have been found guilty of corruption after a months-long bribery trial against three associates of the Monaco-based energy consultancy.
After weeks of deliberation, a London jury found Ziad Akle, 45, the company’s former territory manager for Iraq, guilty on two counts of conspiracy to make corrupt payments in the country in the years following Saddam Hussein’s fall from power.
Steven Whiteley, 65, who was Unaoil’s general territories manager for Iraq, and formerly a vice-president of Dutch manufacturer SBM Offshore – a firm linked to the Unaoil probe – was found guilty on one count.
Both men are due to be sentenced next week at London’s Southwark Crown Court.
UK Serious Fraud Office pursued bribery convictions over Unaoil activity in Iraq
It follows a prosecution by the UK’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) linked to energy infrastructure deals made in Iraq during rebuilding efforts in the post-Hussein years, and marks a notable victory in a vast global corruption investigation into Unaoil and its activities.
SFO director Lisa Osofsky said: “These men dishonestly and corruptly took advantage of a government reeling from dictatorship and occupation, and trying to reconstruct a war-torn state. They abused the system to cut out competitors and line their own pockets.”
The verdicts announced today (13 July) come after a protracted court case that began in January but was suspended in March for two months due to coronavirus, moving from London’s Southwark Crown Court to the Old Bailey Central Criminal Court to allow social distancing as the trial concluded.
Jurors were unable to reach a decision on charges faced by Paul Bond, 68, a former vice-president of SBM Offshore, who faced two counts of conspiracy to make corrupt payments.
In July 2019, the SFO secured a guilty plea on bribery offences from Basil Al Jarah, 71, who was the Iraq partner at Unaoil. He is also awaiting sentencing.
Prosecutors argued defendants bribed Iraqi officials to win infrastructure contracts
The SFO case centred on claims the defendants were complicit in arranging bribes to be paid to senior Iraqi officials in return for insider knowledge and favourable decisions in a multi-billion-dollar project to upgrade oil and gas infrastructure in southern Iraq in the post-invasion years.
The $4.5bn Iraq Crude Oil Export Expansion Project (ICOEEP) was conceived in 2007 to boost crude export capacity in the region from 1.8 million barrels per day (bpd) to 4.5 million bpd as part of rebuilding efforts in the war-torn country.
Two key ventures were investigated by the SFO – a contract to develop single-point moorings (SPM) offshore infrastructure, and another to expand two oil pipelines in the region – both of which were secured by Unaoil on behalf of its clients, but only thanks to the payment of $6m in bribes according to the fraud prosecutors.
Both Akle and Whiteley were found guilty of paying more than $500,000 in bribes to secure the $55m contract for the offshore mooring buoys.
Unaoil, which was founded by British-Iranian businessman Ata Ahsani and headed by his two sons Cyrus and Saman, is accused of positioning itself as a middleman in Iraq in the years after the US-led invasion between government bodies tendering lucrative construction contracts and the global manufacturing firms seeking to win them.
According to Michael Brompton QC, who prosecuted the SFO’s case, Unaoil “bought up” Oday Al Quoraishi, a project manager at Iraq’s state-owned South Oil Company (SOC), and exploited his position manipulate tender processes in favour of its own clients by accessing confidential information.
Akle was involved in the payment of a monthly retainer to Al Quoraishi of $6,000 per month, as well as several one-off payments that took the overall bill to more than $600,000 – bribe money, according to the SFO, to secure his influence at the highest levels of SOC
The defendant and his legal team led by Jim Sturman QC argued that civil unrest and suspicion of Western businesses in Iraq at that time meant Al Quoraishi’s retainer was paid legitimately as a “risk premium” to ensure his safety on the ground.
According to the SFO, Akle’s own commission from two infrastructure deals struck by Unaoil totalled more than $425,000 – reflecting his “very senior” position within the operation.
Whiteley is said to have received almost $11,000 for his role in helping to secure the single-point moorings contract on behalf of SBM Offshore.