Unaoil execs' guilty pleas raise questions for UK fraud agency

6 November 2019 11:53am

31 October 2019, by Martin Coyle

Guilty pleas by former Unaoil executives on US corruption charges shed light on a massive global bribery scheme involving millions of dollars in illicit payments, but questions remain as to why the UK fraud agency appears to have taken a back seat.

Cyrus Ahsani, the ex-chief executive of the Monaco-based oil consultancy, and Saman Ahsani, its former chief operating officer, pleaded guilty to Foreign Corrupt Practices Act violations in March, the US Department of Justice said.

The brothers, both UK nationals, admitted to conspiring with executives at 25 unnamed companies to pay bribes to foreign government officials around the world. They also admitted to laundering the proceeds of bribe payments and to concealing evidence from US, UK and Italian authorities. The conspiracy spanned three decades.

The Ahsanis will be sentenced in April and US prosecutors have said they will be seeking money from the duo. There's no mention of possible jail sentences for them in the DOJ statement, despite the serious and wide-ranging criminality. This suggests the pair may have done a deal with authorities in the US to avoid prison.

The indictment — filed in a district court in Houston, Texas, earlier this year and unsealed on 30 October — lays bare years of corrupt activity by the Ahsanis. The brothers have been under scrutiny since Australia’s Fairfax Media first aired claims about their activity in April 2016.

SBM Offshore and Rolls Royce, along with 25 other unidentified companies, are listed as being party to the global bribery scheme, which saw payments totaling millions of dollars made to officials in Algeria, Angola, Azerbaijan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Libya and Syria.

The Ahsanis targeted energy companies, as well as engineering and construction companies in the energy sector. The brothers solicited these to retain the services of intermediary companies, citing their ability to obtain confidential bidding information because of their proximity to government officials.

The pair used code words and structured kickback payments, made through subsidiary companies, to conceal their corrupt activity, US prosecutors said. They also destroyed incriminating documents when investigators closed in on them. The bribe money was funneled through various bank accounts in the US, UK, Switzerland and Monaco.

Taking the lead

Despite that global scope, the fact that the DOJ — that is, a US agency — rather than the UK’s Serious Fraud Office took the lead in prosecuting the men is curious.

Note, for instance, that the SFO was first on the scene in Monaco in March 2016, when Unaoil’s headquarters and the homes of the Ahsanis were raided with the help of the local authorities.

The UK agency subsequently launched criminal probes into a number of Unaoil-linked companies, such as Petrofac and Amec Foster Wheeler. In 2016, the SFO was armed with government blockbuster funding to top up its resources for Unaoil-linked probes.

The UK prosecutor began criminal proceedings against Unaoil for suspected corruption offenses in June 2018 and sought the return of Saman Ahsani from Monaco. This request was refused by Monaco’s Court of Appeal in March. Saman Ahsani was later arrested in Italy, and the SFO successfully got the permission of Italy’s top court to return him to the UK to face corruption charges.

From this point, it appears US officials stepped in. While it isn’t unusual for the US to take the lead in global corruption cases, its presence in the case of two UK nationals involved in a UK-linked company is rare, particularly given the SFO had played a prominent role in investigating the criminality.

In June this year, it emerged that the SFO had quietly dropped its three-year probe into the Ahsanis and Unaoil — a curious end to the agency’s biggest-ever corruption investigation. At one point, the SFO had 50 officials working on the case known as Operation Pivot.

The indictment yesterday offers no clues as to why the US took the lead on prosecuting the Ahsanis and what — if any — sanction or prosecution the brothers may face in the UK.

But some pointers may emerge in a London employment tribunal claim brought by the SFO’s former lead officer on the Unaoil case. Tom Martin claims he was unfairly dismissed by the UK agency following complaints about his behavior made by the DOJ and Unaoil, which he denies.

The SFO has made an application to keep Martin’s case under wraps, on the grounds the tribunal hearing could influence a future criminal trial involving three former Unaoil-linked executives, which is due to start in London in January.

That said, the SFO has pointed to the upcoming trial as evidence its efforts have not been for nothing; the case has already seen a guilty plea from a former Unaoil-linked executive, Basil Al Jarah.

The agency declined to comment for this article.

Martin’s tribunal and the January court hearing, plus any further future action, could offer some insight into why the US took reins of the Ahsanis' case. Until then, questions will remain about what— if anything — could have prompted the SFO to pass up an opportunity to bring the brothers to book on home soil, as it seems it did.