Eni backs CEO after prosecutors ask for trial over Nigeria

MILAN (Reuters) - Italian oil major Eni has backed CEO Claudio Descalzi after sources said on Wednesday prosecutors had asked for him to be sent to trial over alleged corruption in Nigeria.

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“The Board of Directors confirms its total confidence... Descalzi was not involved in any way in the conduct under investigation,” the state-controlled major said.

Earlier on Wednesday judicial sources said prosecutors had asked for Descalzi, along with 10 other people, to stand trial in a case revolving around the purchase of a Nigerian oilfield by Eni and Royal Dutch Shell for about $1.3 billion.

The request comes at a delicate moment for Eni, just weeks before the government proposes its CEO candidate for the group for the next three years.

Descalzi, a veteran oilman who has refocused the group on the job of finding oil and gas, was appointed by the government of Matteo Renzi in 2014.

But Renzi stepped down as prime minister in December after losing a referendum on constitutional reform, leaving political uncertainty.

Descalzi, who was head of exploration and production at Eni before taking over the top spot, could be reappointed for a second term.

The prosecutors in the case also asked for Eni and Shell to be sent to trial, the sources said.

Under Italian law a company can be held responsible if it is deemed to have failed to prevent, or attempt to prevent, a crime by an employee that benefited the company.

Eni said its board was confident the group was free of any involvement. Shell declined to comment.

The Italian inquiry is one of several under way into the acquisition of OPL-245, including current cases in Holland and Nigeria.

In January a Nigerian court ordered the temporary forfeiture of assets and the transfer of operations of the oilfield.

A court must now set a date for a hearing at which a judge will decide whether to accept the prosecutors’ request for a trial or acquit the accused.

Additional reporting by Ron Bousso; Editing by Ruth Pitchford