August 26, 2007 / 5:42 PM / 12 years ago

Nigeria a legal trouble spot for oil service firms

HOUSTON (Reuters) - Operating in oil-rich Nigeria has always been a challenge for energy-service companies, but new bribery probes by U.S. authorities are raising legal and financial risks that may force them to leave the country.

GlobalSantaFe Corp, Transocean Inc and Pride International Inc have all said in regulatory filings that they received requests for information from the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), which is probing whether the oil service companies violated the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) by bribing customs officials in Nigeria.

The act outlaws bribes paid by U.S. companies or their agents to win business abroad. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) is also probing a number of companies.

Booming oil prices in recent years have pushed up demand for offshore drilling rigs in West Africa, but lawyers say doing business there inevitably involves taking risks.

“In Nigeria, there are a lot of people who are demanding those services and they are basically going into the Wild West,” said Brad Richards of Houston law firm Haynes and Boone. “They are going into a market where the way of doing business is to pay bribes.”

Transparency International, a global nonprofit group that battles corruption, found in a 2006 poll that bribe paying is the norm in a number of African countries, including Nigeria.

Richards, who advises companies doing business in Nigeria, said the number of FCPA probes grew after the Sarbanes-Oxley governance reforms of 2002 which, among other things, require companies to report more detailed financial information.

“It’s going to be a growing problem for companies in that the DOJ and the SEC have it in their bulls-eye,” he said.

A Houston-based spokeswoman for the DOJ would not comment.

Other oil service companies facing scrutiny from U.S. authorities or conducting their own probes into possible FCPA violations include Tidewater Inc and Noble Corp. Global Industries Ltd announced in June an internal bribery probe of its West African operations. Nabors Industries Inc said in a regulatory filing the DOJ was probing one of its customs vendors.

And Swiss logistics and transport group Panalpina said in July it had started an inquiry because U.S. authorities requested documents related to a bribery probe.

The companies have said they are cooperating with the government. But several warned that if they do not get permits to operate in Nigeria, they will have to cancel contracts.

Noble said it had not been able to obtain or renew permits for five of its seven rigs operating in Nigeria due to its probe. If those permits cannot be obtained, “we may need to terminate the drilling contract,” it said in an SEC filing .

UNSEALED

So far, U.S. authorities have nabbed two oil services companies, Baker Hughes Inc and Vetco International Ltd, for FCPA violations. Baker Hughes reached a $44.1 million settlement in April with the DOJ and SEC related to a bribery probe of its operations in Nigeria, Angola and Kazakhstan.

Baker Hughes pleaded guilty to FCPA violations and agreed to hire an outside monitor to oversee its compliance.

Two shareholder groups have sued Baker Hughes’ officers and directors over the violations. In a federal complaint filed in Houston, shareholders allege the company has failed to comply with the FCPA for more than a decade.

“Companies have a lot of opportunities to do the right thing,” Ann Ritter, an attorney with South Carolina-based firm Motley Rice, who represents the Sheetmetal Workers’ National Pension Fund. “And activist shareholders have a chance to use their voice to try and help them move in the right direction.”

A spokesman for Baker Hughes was not available to comment on the lawsuits.

In February, three Vetco subsidiaries pleaded guilty to violating anti-bribery provisions of the FCPA and agreed to a $26 million fine. According to court documents, the wholly owned subsidiaries admitted they violated and conspired to violate the law in connection with the payment of about $2.1 million to Nigerian government officials.

“It’s a tough problem for companies,” said Cherie Taylor, a law professor at the South Texas College of Law in Houston. “But on the other hand, we’ve got no hope of getting those countries to get in line if we don’t lead by example.”

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