(Corrects headline to make clear bribery probe primarily concerns Saipem)
By Jessica Donati and Stephen Jewkes
MILAN, March 6 (Reuters) - An Italian investigation into suspected bribery by workers at energy firm Eni and its Saipem unit to secure Algerian oil and gas industry contracts has led prosecutors to a vineyard outside Naples part owned by two central figures in the case, judicial sources say.
According to a Feb. 6 warrant to search homes and offices of executives of Eni and Saipem, stakeholders in the agricultural business include Pietro Varone, former chief operating officer of Saipem’s engineering arm, and Farid Noureddine Bedjaoui, a 43-year-old French national born in Algeria.
There is no evidence to suggest there is anything illegal about the vineyard business. But the judicial sources say they are keen to understand more about the two men’s financial relationship and whether money paid into the vineyard included siphoned off Eni and Saipem funds.
Efforts to contact Bedjaoui and Varone were unsuccessful.
The inquiry into Eni and Saipem, coinciding with separate cases of alleged wrongdoing at Italy’s Monte dei Paschi di Siena bank and defence group Finmeccanica, has soured Italians’ perceptions of an elite many accuse of personal enrichment in times of national hardship. That mood fed into a backlash against established parties in Italy’s election.
In the Feb. 6 warrant, prosecutors set out their suspicions.
Bedjaoui is suspected of channelling nearly 198 million euros in bribes to officials in Algeria via a company called Pearl Partners Limited for eight contracts totalling $11 billion awarded to Saipem, Europe’s biggest oil services company, between 2007-9, the warrant says.
The warrant says that Varone was one of Eni and Saipem’s main interlocutors with Bedjaoui.
According to investigation documents reviewed by Reuters, Pearl Partners was registered in Hong Kong at the time of the alleged payments and managed by a subsidiary in Fujairah, the United Arab Emirates. An agency that registers firms in Fujairah said Pearl Partners was wound up in 2010 and none of its documents were publicly available.
The Feb 6 warrant alleges Varone recommended Pearl Partners to the Saipem board to advise on Saipem’s business activities in Algeria and the Middle East.
Varone was one of several senior managers at Saipem and Eni to resign in December as a result of the investigation. Eni and Saipem have denied wrongdoing.
Eni, Italy’s largest company in terms of market value, is the biggest foreign energy operator in Africa. It has operated in Algeria since 1981 and has extensive gas interests there.
A judicial source says Bedjaoui paid 1.5 million euros into the vineyard, owned by Bedjaoui, Varone and members of Varone’s family. Nicola Trabucco, a wine consultant to the vineyard, told Reuters the vineyard has yet to produce anything and he had not heard from Varone and Bedjaoui for some time.
Bedjaoui’s payments to the vineyard were detailed in documents intercepted by police as they were carried through a Rome railway station by a relation of Varone’s estranged wife.
Efforts to contact those the warrant says are connected to the business, including Varone’s brother, estranged wife and her niece were unsuccessful. The other stakeholders are not accused of any wrongdoing nor under investigation.
An investigation document containing a reference to the papers seized at the station does not say whether the payments to the agricultural business can be linked to the alleged bribes. The judicial source said the business referred to in the document was near Naples and called Ager Falernus.
Ager Falernus markets half a dozen red and white wines produced over 40 hectares of plush Mediterranean coast, according to its website, including bottles of Black Magic and Sunshine. (Additional reporting by Manuela D‘Alessandro; editing by Philippa Fletcher and Janet McBride)