Noble execs cut deal with SEC ahead of bribery trial

July 2 Wed Jul 2, 2014 11:36am EDT

July 2 (Reuters) - Two executives from offshore drilling contractor Noble Corp have agreed to settle civil claims they participated in a bribery scheme to obtain permits for oil rigs in Nigeria, days before the case was set to go to trial.

Jury selection had been scheduled for next Monday in the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission's case against Mark Jackson, Noble's former chief executive officer, and James Ruehlen, director of the oil and gas services company's Nigerian subsidiary. The two men were sued under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), which bans U.S. companies from bribing foreign officials.

A federal judge in Houston called off all trial deadlines on Tuesday pending a final settlement. The terms, which must be approved by a judge, were not disclosed in court papers.

While the FCPA has been the at the center of at least eight criminal trials since 2009, the case would have marked a rare instance of the SEC bringing a civil action to trial.

It also would also have marked the latest test of the SEC's enforcement powers following a mixed record before juries, most recently resulting in two insider trading losses.

The SEC sued Jackson and Ruehlen in 2012, two years after Noble agreed to pay $8 million to resolve related FCPA civil and criminal charges.

Noble in 2011 agreed to pay $2.5 million as part of a non-prosecution agreement with the Nigerian government.

The lawsuit against Jackson and Ruehlen centered on temporary import permits granted by Nigeria's customs service to Noble's local subsidiary that allowed rigs to remain in the country for a one-year period.

The customs service had the authority to grant up to three six-month extensions before the company would either need to receive a new temporary permit to export and re-import the rigs or permanently import them and pay significant duties.

The SEC contended Jackson and Ruehlen participated in a scheme to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to Nigerian customs officials to obtain 11 illicit permits and 29 extensions.

Both men denied the charges. Thomas O'Rourke, Noble's former head of internal audit, agreed in 2012 to pay a $35,000 penalty to resolve claims he aided and abetted the violations without admitting or denying the allegations.

The case is SEC v. Jackson, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Houston, No. 12-00563. (Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Tom Brown)