U.S. News

U.S. man faces charges for bribery in Nigeria

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. man faces federal corruption and money-laundering charges for allegedly arranging $6 million in bribes to Nigerian officials to win a contract for a natural-gas pipeline.

According to charges unsealed by the Justice Department on Monday, Jason Steph, 37, arranged the payments between 2003 and 2005 when he managed on-shore Nigerian operations for Willbros Group Inc., a Houston oil-services firm. Steph resigned from Willbros in 2005 and now lives in Kazakhstan.

Steph faces up to 65 years in prison and millions of dollars in fines if convicted.

According to the indictment, Steph and several others arranged the payments to win a $387 million contract with the Nigerian government to build a pipeline known as the Eastern Gas Gathering System in a remote section of the Niger Delta.

Steph could not be reached for comment.

The bribes went to officials at subsidiaries of the Nigerian National Petroleum Corp., the state-owned company that oversees the country’s oil and gas reserves, the indictment said. Payments also went to an unnamed senior official in the executive branch of the Nigerian federal government and to the People’s Democratic Party, which has held power since 1999.

According to the indictment, former Willbros employee Jim Bob Brown, who headed the company’s Nigerian operations, also participated in the scheme. Brown pleaded guilty to criminal bribery charges last fall and settled a similar civil case with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Other unnamed U.S., Nigerian, German and Canadian nationals were also listed as co-conspirators but not charged.

The Justice Department said the criminal investigation was continuing.

Despite frustration in Nigeria over widespread corruption, the People’s Democratic Party held on to power in April elections widely condemned as fraudulent.

Corruption has been a problem for other foreign companies doing business there as well.

Oil drillers Noble Corp. and Tidewater Inc. have opened investigations to determine if their employees bribed Nigerian officials. Oil-services firm Baker Hughes Inc. in April reached a $44.1 million settlement with the United States related to a bribery probe of its operations in Nigeria, Angola and Kazakhstan.

Willbros completed the sale of its Nigerian operations in February to Ascot Offshore Nigeria Ltd. for $155 million.