Unaoil paid $6 million in bribes for Iraqi oil contracts, London court hears

LONDON (Reuters) - Monaco-based oil and gas consultancy Unaoil paid $6 million (4.6 million pounds) in bribes to secure Iraqi oil contracts after the fall of Saddam Hussein, a London court heard on Thursday.

In the trial, which has just begun, two former Unaoil managers and an ex-sales chief of Dutch-based energy services company SBM SBMO.AS are accused of conspiring to bribe top Iraqi officials to secure lucrative projects.

The high-profile case revolves around how Iraq sought to more than double oil production after the overthrow of Hussein in 2003. It wanted to install three floating buoys in the Persian Gulf, connected with two, vast pipelines to storage tanks near oilfields so that tankers could load oil offshore.

The UK Serious Fraud Office (SFO), which is prosecuting in the case, alleges that Ziad Akle, Stephen Whiteley and Paul Bond plotted with Unaoil’s controlling Ahsani family and others to skew a tender process for oil projects between 2005 and 2011.

The men, who each face two charges of conspiracy to give corrupt payments, deny wrongdoing. They will lay out their defence later.

Opening the case for the prosecution, lawyer Michael Brompton alleged that Unaoil, controlled by founder and chairman Ata Ashani and his sons Cyrus and Saman, aligned itself with other companies and helped ensure they would win contracts by manipulating tenders and bribing senior Iraqi officials.

“The purpose ... was to ensure that the tender documents..., the technical specifications and design documents suited the company that Unaoil wished to align itself with ... suited that company and disadvantaged their competitors.

“And that, in a nutshell ... is what this case is about,” Brompton told the jury at London’s Southwark Crown Court.

British-Lebanese Akle, 44, was Unaoil’s former territory manager for Iraq and Whiteley, a 64-year-old Briton, was once Unaoil’s general territories manager for Iraq, Kazakhstan and Angola and a one-time vice president of Dutch-based oil and gas services company SBM (Offshore).

Bond, a 67-year-old Briton, is a former SBM senior sales manager for the Middle East.

Brompton alleged that after “a long process of manoeuvring and manipulation”, SBM and Unaoil secured the contract to supply the buoys and Unaoil and Australia-based Leighton Holdings won the contracts to lay the pipelines and install the buoys.

“In all, Unaoil paid bribes totalling approximately $6.0 million in order to secure the two contracts, together worth approximately $800 million,” he alleged.

The jury was told that co-conspirator Basil Al Jarah, the former partner in Iraq for Unaoil known affectionately as “Captain” because of his former role as a sea captain, had already pleaded guilty to bribery offences in the case and that Saman and Cyrus Ahsani were subject to U.S. criminal proceedings.

The trial is scheduled to last for four months.

Additional reporting by Ahmed Rasheed in Baghdad; Editing by Susan Fenton