* Half of $1.1 bln paid for oil field went on
* Case relates to Eni's 2011 purchase of OPL 245 offshore
* Eni's former and current CEO under investigation in the
* Eni executives and company deny wrongdoing
By Emilio Parodi and Oleg Vukmanovic
MILAN, Oct 1 Italian prosecutors investigating
state-backed firm Eni SpA over the purchase of a
Nigerian oil field three years ago allege that at least half of
the $1.1 billion paid was used to bribe local politicians,
intermediaries and others, according to official documents and a
person close to the investigation.
The Milan prosecutors have placed the Italian oil company,
its former chief executive Paolo Scaroni and current CEO Claudio
Descalzi under investigation for alleged international
corruption surrounding the deal for the OPL 245 offshore oil
Eni and both managers, neither of whom have been charged,
have denied any wrongdoing.
Calling on their UK counterpart to assist in freezing
suspect assets, Italian prosecutors said in a letter to the UK's
Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) seen by Reuters that at least
$533 million was paid to Nigerian officials and intermediaries
who helped secure the sale.
The case has been a setback for the government of Prime
Minister Matteo Renzi, because Italy's 39-year-old leader
hand-picked company veteran Descalzi to run Eni as part of a
recent management overhaul at the country's state-controlled
companies. Renzi has publicly supported Descalzi and said no
conclusions should be drawn before the investigation is
Eni and Royal Dutch Shell, which is not under
investigation, bought the rights to the OPL 245 offshore oil
licence block from the Nigerian government in 2011.
Production from the deepwater oil field is expected to begin
in 2016 with the field estimated to hold up to 9.23 billion
barrels of crude, equivalent to nearly a quarter of the
country's total proven reserves, according to industry figures.
An aide to Renzi told Reuters the case involving Eni, which
is Italy's biggest company by market capitalisation and the
state's biggest asset, was "not a big cause for concern at the
As part of their investigation, the Italian prosecutors in
May asked the UK's CPS to freeze $85 million in assets related
to a Nigerian company, Malabu Oil & Gas, that prosecutors say
was involved in the sale, according to a copy of the official
request sent by the Milan investigators and seen by Reuters.
In the letter, the Italian prosecutors alleged that Scaroni
and Descalzi oversaw the payments to parties who helped secure
the sale. In a second letter they alleged that some of the
ultimate recipients of alleged bribes used the money to buy
aircraft and armoured cars.
"We are investigating many money transfers to many people in
various countries who received sums that vary from millions of
dollars to thousands of dollars," the prosecutors said in the
follow-up letter, seen by Reuters.
In response to the requests London's Southwark Crown Court
last month granted an order to seize the $85 million in assets
related to Malabu, according to a judicial source.
London's Metropolitan Police has also been investigating
aspects of the Nigerian deal since last year. A police spokesman
said the inquiry into allegations of money laundering is
Descalzi and Scaroni, in statements and through their
lawyers, denied that they were involved in any illegal
behaviour. Descalzi also told Eni employees in an email seen by
Reuters that he had not engaged in any wrongdoing.
After a board meeting last week Eni also reiterated that the
company had not engaged in any wrongdoing and that it had "full
confidence that Descalzi had acted properly."
The OPL 245 block licence has long been the subject of
dispute. It was first awarded a decade ago by military dictator
Sani Abacha to Malabu Oil & Gas for a publicly-stated $20
After the death of Abacha, a new Nigerian government
annulled the deal. Malabu's licence was reinstated in 2006.
Reuters was not able to locate Malabu for comment, and it is
unclear whether the company still exists.
Nigeria's Economic and Financial Crimes Commission, a
government agency, did not reply to questions sent by Reuters
asking about the investigation by Italian prosecutors.
Shell, which is not under investigation in any case,
released a statement saying: "Shell companies have acted at all
times in accordance with both Nigerian law and the terms of the
OPL 245 resolution agreement with."
(Additional reporting by Manuela D'Alessandro and Stephen
Jewkes in Milan and Kirstin Ridley in London; Writing by Silvia
Aloisi; Editing by Alessandra Galloni and Greg Mahlich)