Iran General NewsBoss accused of bribery over Iran oil deal told:...

Boss accused of bribery over Iran oil deal told: Don’t talk to Rafsanjani

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The Scotsman: The French company chairman under investigation for alleged corruption involving deals with Iran has been banned from contacting the former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his son Mehdi, it was revealed yesterday. The Scotsman

SUSAN BELL IN PARIS

THE French company chairman under investigation for alleged corruption involving deals with Iran has been banned from contacting the former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani and his son Mehdi, it was revealed yesterday.

Christophe de Margerie, the chief executive of Total – known within the oil company as “the Big Moustache” – has been questioned about claims the firm paid bribes of more than £40 million to secure a natural gas deal with Iran in 1997, while he was serving as the firm’s head of operations in the Middle East.

His is the only signature on the Iranian contract, which gave Total exploitation rights over the South Pars offshore oil field. According to judicial sources, he has been placed under formal investigation – one step short of being charged under French law – for “corruption of foreign officials” and “misuse of company assets”.

Mr de Margerie denies any wrongdoing and Total says it is confident nothing improper will be uncovered. “The group expresses its full support for its employees and confirms that the agreements for the development of the South Pars project were entered into in compliance with applicable law,” it said.

The de Margerie case has been transferred to a special judicial unit dedicated to investigating high-level corruption cases and the Total chief spent the night in police custody before a judge, Philippe Courroye, ordered his release without bail on Thursday.

Mr de Margerie, who is already under investigation over the Iraq “oil for food” bribes scandal, was allowed to resume his duties at Total but was forbidden from contacting Mr Rafsanjani, his son Mehdi and other leading Iranian figures while the investigation continues.

Mr Rafsanjani was president of Iran between 1989 and 1997. His son came to Mr Courroye’s attention via an inquiry into the Norwegian national oil company, Statoil, by the authorities in Oslo.

A source close to the French inquiry said that investigators suspected Mehdi Rafsanjani’s secretary of being the alleged middleman after the questioning of another executive, or former executive, at Total.

This individual has identified the secretary as an Iranian resident in Switzerland who held a Swiss bank account in which suspect funds had been found. Investigators are interested in two Swiss accounts into which the kickbacks were allegedly paid in instalments.

The main problem for Total is that some of them were paid after 2003, the year in which France signed the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s convention agreeing to make such kickbacks illegal.

The Total investigation has brought back memories of the Elf scandal which shook France in the late 1990s and was described at the time as “the biggest fraud inquiry in Europe since the Second World War”. Executives of the company used it as a private bank, spending £200 million on mistresses, villas, fine art and political favours. The scandal brought down a former high-ranking government minister, then head of France’s highest court.

Total executives have stressed that, unlike the Elf case, any commission paid to secure international contracts did not involve “retro-commissions”, in which money is paid back to company executives.

Also detained for questioning this week, but released without further action, were Robert Castaigne, Total’s finance director; Philippe Boisseau, its head of gas operations; Michel Naylies, the former Total executive responsible for the South Pars project, and Patrick Rambaud, a former company executive.

Mr de Margerie headed Total’s Middle East operations between 1995 and 1997, then became head of exploration and production before taking the role of chief executive last month.

He was also placed under investigation last year over allegations that he paid bribes to win bids in Iraq between 1996 and 2002.

A number of global figures have been caught up in the so-called Iraq oil-for-food scandal, including Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary-general, who took personal responsibility for failures at the programme last year.

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