US swoop on UK Unaoil probe suspect risked rift in DOJ-SFO relations

13 July 2020 12:12 by Martin Coyle

corruption energy

A swoop by US prosecutors on Saman Ahsani, a key target in the UK’s high-profile Unaoil corruption probe, sparked an extraordinary row between the two countries’ fraud agencies, MLex has learned.

Ahsani, former chief operating officer at the Monaco-based oil consultancy, was in line to be tried for bribery offenses in the UK by the Serious Fraud Office after the government’s top lawyer approved his prosecution.

But US Department of Justice officials preempted the SFO’s attempts to extradite him from Italy by approaching Ahsani themselves, despite the UK agency believing that they had agreed to leave the field clear.

The battle over who would prosecute Unaoil and its executives led to testy exchanges between senior US and UK prosecutors, MLex understands.

The row, which went to the top of both agencies, exacerbated an already tense dynamic between the enforcers, leading to concerns that cooperation on other investigations would suffer.

In June last year, MLex revealed that the SFO had halted its three-year investigation into alleged wrongdoing by Unaoil and top executives — its chairman Ata Ahsani and his two sons, former chief executive Cyrus and Saman.

The probe, nicknamed Operation Pivot, was one of the agency’s largest investigations, and at its peak had 50 officials working on it. The SFO was handed millions of pounds in government “blockbuster” funding in November 2016 to help prosecute the case.

Now UK nationals Saman and Cyrus Ahsani are set to be sentenced in the US later this year on Foreign Corrupt Practices Act charges after pleading guilty in March 2019 to the widespread bribery of government officials over decades.

Unsuccessful bids

The tussle between the SFO and the DOJ followed Saman Ahsani’s arrest by Italian police in Rome in April 2018.

He was being held on a European Arrest Warrant issued by the SFO, and Italy’s highest court later ruled that he could be returned to the UK to face corruption charges.

But it is understood that Saman refused to cooperate with UK officials after his arrest, even though the SFO offered the possibility of a reduced sentence in return for information on the case.

He did, however, give evidence to US officials over three days in Italy, MLex has learned. This led to him pleading guilty to charges in Houston, Texas, rather than in London.

It was the SFO’s second failure to land Saman following an unsuccessful bid to extradite him from Monaco in February 2018. The country’s ruler, Prince Albert II, blocked that move after a Monaco court stated that the Unaoil executive wasn’t liable for criminal prosecution under local laws.

By the time of the Rome arrest, the SFO had dedicated considerable effort to the case. In fact, a date had already been set for Saman’s trial, it is understood. The UK’s attorney general had given consent, as was required for cases brought under the country’s old bribery legislation, the Prevention of Corruption Act 1906.

Clear path

Senior SFO officials believed they had an understanding that the DOJ would step aside, giving them a clear path to go after Unaoil executives and any linked UK companies.

MLex understands that in return for the perceived go-ahead to prosecute the Ahsanis, the SFO handed the US agency millions of pages of evidence found in documents on a computer server seized by UK officials from Unaoil’s headquarters in Monaco in March 2016.

But events in Rome put paid to any belief among UK prosecutors that the DOJ would stand back.

The turf war that followed threatened to blow a hole in cooperation between the SFO and the DOJ, which had already been dented by bad blood on previous investigations, including a corruption probe into individuals linked to engine maker Rolls-Royce.

By taking on the Saman prosecution, the US agency put short-term interests ahead of its wider relationship with the SFO, some UK officials argued. Others in London warned that the spat could harm relations between London and Washington, it is understood.

A particular point of frustration for the SFO team was the feeling that the US had piggybacked on a case originated by the UK agency three years before.

Responding to a request for comment from MLex, the SFO said it wouldn’t discuss conversations with other agencies but stressed its close relationship with the US.

“We have a strong and mutually beneficial relationship with our law enforcement partners in the United States and co-operate on a strategic and operational level. This was exemplified in our close co-operation during the investigation into and unprecedented global settlement with Airbus relating to historical corrupt conduct at the company,” an SFO spokesman told MLex.

The agency declined to comment on the specific suggestion that it handed over documents for the go-ahead to prosecute the Ahsanis, but it is understood that it is not SFO policy to exchange information for something in return.

Trial warning

For their part, MLex understands, DOJ officials believed that they had done what they could to ensure that Saman co-operated with the SFO on its Unaoil case. Also, they felt their agency had helped its UK counterpart build many cases in the past, even putting its own cases at risk to do so.

In this instance, the UK fraud office foresaw risk on the opposite side of the Atlantic. SFO officials warned the DOJ that the trial of former Unaoil and SBM Offshore executives could be compromised by the US prosecution of Saman.

The UK trial, which began in January this year, ended last month with the convictions of former Unaoil executives Ziad Akle and Stephen Whiteley, while the jury could not return a verdict on a third defendant, former SBM Offshore manager Paul Bond.

The trio were accused of conspiring to make corrupt payments and had denied all charges. A fourth man, Basil Al-Jarah, Unaoil's former country manager for Iraq, pleaded guilty to the charges before the trial. Reporting restrictions on the trial verdicts were lifted today, and the three convicted men are due to be sentenced next week.

In the US case, the Ahsani brothers admitted to conspiring with executives at SBM Offshore and Rolls-Royce, as well as at 25 unidentified companies, 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 pair used code words and structured kickback payments, made through subsidiary companies, to conceal their corrupt activity, US prosecutors said, while bribe money was funneled through bank accounts in the US, UK, Switzerland and Monaco. The brothers also destroyed incriminating documents when investigators closed in on them. They are likely to be sentenced in the US in October.

In a response to a request for comment from MLex, a DOJ spokeswoman said her agency had a good relationship with the SFO. “The Justice Department’s Fraud Section of the Department’s Criminal Division has a close law enforcement relationship with UK’s Serious Fraud Office. This successful cooperation is exemplified in the Airbus and Rolls Royce resolutions,” she said.

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