Unaoil's UK bribery probe halted after three years

25 June 2019 9:02am

20 June 2019, by Martin Coyle

Unaoil has seen UK fraud investigators call a halt to a three-year bribery probe, MLex has learned.

The shelving of the investigation into suspected bribery by the oil-sector consultancy and its owners, the Ahsani family, likely heralds an end to one of the largest cases the Serious Fraud Office has handled.

It also brings to three the number of major bribery probes the SFO has halted this year, coming on top of the closing of investigations into drug company GlaxoSmithKline and individuals connected to Rolls-Royce in February.

The SFO revealed that it was conducting a direct probe into Unaoil in July 2016, and at one point had 50 officials working on the case, known as Operation Pivot. It was handed additional government cash to fund it in November 2016.

It is now unlikely that Unaoil Chairman Ata Ahsani and his two sons, former chief executive Cyrus and chief operating officer Saman, will be prosecuted. Charges against the company are also unlikely to proceed.

The three men were originally arrested and questioned by SFO officials in Monaco in March 2016 in connection with suspected bribery offenses. They were later released and voluntarily attended interviews under caution in London in May 2016.

Arrest warrants issued against the company and the three men have now been withdrawn, it is understood. An official at Westminster Magistrates Court in London, where the warrants were issued, told MLex there was no record of the men on its system.

The SFO’s wider investigation into suspected misconduct by companies and individuals linked to Unaoil is still ongoing, MLex understands.

The SFO had attempted to extradite Saman first from Monaco, and then later from Italy, on European Arrest Warrants. All three men are now living in various locations in Europe, it is understood.

The SFO opened criminal proceedings against Unaoil Monaco SAM and Unaoil Ltd in June 2018 as part of its  investigation. Both units have since been placed in liquidation.

Unaoil Ltd faced two charges of conspiring to give corrupt payments, related to a $733 million contract with Leighton Contractors Singapore to build two oil pipelines in southern Iraq.

The Monaco arm also faced two charges of making corrupt payments related to the award of contracts in Iraq to a Unaoil client SBM Offshore.

Questions

The dropping of the charges throws up new questions over the SFO’s ability to prosecute large-scale bribery cases, following the ending of its big-ticket probes into GSK and officials linked to Rolls-Royce.

Lisa Osofsky, who took over as SFO director from David Green last August, started her tenure by reviewing the 50 or so the cases the agency has on its books, and has pledged to speed up its investigations.

The SFO has charged four individuals with conspiring to make corrupt payments to secure the award of contracts in Iraq to Unaoil’s client SBM Offshore. A criminal trial is due to start in January 2020 in a London court.

The SFO and the Ahsani family declined to comment.

	Eliot Gao