Questo articolo è stato pubblicato il 08 febbraio 2013 alle ore 04:57.
L'ultima modifica è del 08 febbraio 2013 alle ore 03:50.
The investigation by the prosecutor’s office in Milan of Saipem, the engineering giant controlled by Eni, has gone beyond our national borders. With a police operation conducted simultaneously in Italy, Switzerland and France, the story is complex and deserves to be told in detail.
Some aspects of it have already been published in newspapers. For example, reports of an investigation of Saipem for alleged corruption related to contracts in Algeria appeared in December. Nine months ago, the daily La Repubblica published an article of a completely different nature—about a winery, the Ager Falernus, founded in 2008 in the province of Caserta. The company had 40 hectares, the story said, a dozen of which were dedicated to vineyards, and it was at the foot of Mount Massico. The healine: The Vino & Anima: “A Primitivo wine combined with Aglianico grapes and aged in French oak barrels.” The article discussed what a great wine the vineyard produced, considered among the best of ancient Rome by by Martial, Pliny and Cicero.
“Even a sheik is investing in wine from Campania,” the author wrote, without revealing the identity of the exotic character. “Lebanese, code-named ‘Faid’ for security reasons,” the story explained. The author then mentioned a name, Pietro Varone, but did not provide details about the author’s background as a winemaker. Perhaps because he, just like the sheikh, was a new entry in the sector. Until then, Varone had always worked in other fields. Specifically, he was an accountant coming from the world of construction who had later moved into the oil and gas industry, finally becoming general manager of Saipem’s engineering and construction unit.
The real name of the so-called sheikh is Farid Bedjaoui, and he is an Algerian financial adviser active in Canada, Dubai and Lebanon. Great grandson of Mohammed Bedjaoui—the former Algerian ambassador to France and to the United Nations and foreign minister from May 2005 to June 2007—Farid is well-known in Algeria, particularly in the country’s oil industry. According to the Algerian daily Liberté, Farid is the co-owner, along with his brother Reda, of OGEC, a Lebanese engineering and logistical support company active in the oil sector. Saipem, having subcontracted part of its Algerian activities to OGEC, is one of the company’s biggest clients.
Debora Somaschini, granddaughter of Varone (or, more accurately, of his wife, Regina Picone) works or has worked at OGEC as a “personnel manager.” And at this point we are back to what interests us: the story of the 200 million euros in alleged bribes paid to the Algerians. From the warrant to search Varone’s home issued by the Milan prosecutor’s office on December 1 of last year, we learn that on that same day “Debora Somaschini was found in possession of a bag containing documents on Saipem and Varone, as well as a sum of money.” We also learn that “Somaschini said she had just been given the suitcase by her aunt Regina Picano.” Among the papers found in the suitcase were forms to open a jointly held account in a bank in Beirut. The holders would’ve been Mrs. Picano and the “sheik,” Farid Bedjaoui. This, however, is not completely clear.
We thus have a second possible “co-interest” between Bedjaoui and the Varone family. The first concerns the Azienda Agricola Ager Falernus Srl, of which Pietro Varone is formally administrator. The majority shareholder, with a 64 percent stake in the company, appears to be a trust, Riva Reno (who knows who’s behind it?), but 20 percent is owned by Farid Bedjaoui and another 8 percent by Vincenzo Varone, Pietro’s brother. Investigators found two letters among the company’s documents, one from 2009 and one from 2012, in which the Algerian shareholder undertook commitments to inject capital in the firm. A grant. For a total of 1.5 million euros.
But what could push Bedjaoui to co-finance the company managed by Varone? Or to jointly hold a Lebanese bank account with his wife? Might the Algerian have some big favor to reciprocate? We contacted Varone’s attorney to address these questions to Saipem’s manager and also ask him to present his side of the story. Unfortunately, the lawyer told us he had not been able to contact his client.
What we have been able to verify is that on October 17, 2007, Varone signed a brokerage contract for Algeria with Pearl Partners, Ltd., a company that listed Farid Bedjaoui as its owner.
In case Saipem obtained Algerian contracts totaling less than 1 billion euros, this contract provided for a “remuneration equal to 3 percent of the total value.” In case it signed contracts for more than 1 billion euros the remuneration would be “equal to 30 million euros plus 2.5 percent of the portion of the contract that surpassed the 1 billion euro threshold.”
From then on, Saipem signed myriad contracts in Algeria. In July 2008, one for 2.8 billion euros, one in March 2009 for $1.85 billion, in May of the same year another one worth 200 million euros and in June one for $580 million.
This deluge of Algerian contracts was regularly followed by the payment of commission fees that Saipem paid to Pearl on bank accounts in the United Arab Emirates (UAE). In addition to the Italian parent company, Pearl was paid by its French and Portuguese subsidiaries. It is estimated that the Saipem Group transferred approximately 200 million euros.
All this is official. Year after year, in every single financial statement of both Saipem and Eni there has always been an item labeled “brokerage fees.” With the amount, in 2008 alone, of 155 million euros. So no big secret.
But what added value could Pearl give Saipem since it was a front company without any history, any personnel and any know-how? What could a company registered in Hong Kong with a branch in the UAE and no office in Algeria offer?
One possible explanation is that Bedjaoui actually acted on behalf of personalities from the Algerian oil industry to facilitate the payment of bribes in violation of the OECD Convention against corruption and Italian law (legge n. 231). It is a hypothesis that Milan prosecutors Fabio De Pasquale and Sergio Spadaro, who lead the investigation with the support of the Nucleo di Polizia Tributaria of the Guardia di Finanza (the tax unit of Italy’s financial police) in Milan, are assessing. Meanwhile, the suspicion of the Swiss federal prosecutor’s office have unveiled a web of front companies and bank accounts linked to Bedjaoui—accounts in which investigators think at least 25 million euros linked to payments made by Saipem to Pearl have been deposited.
The route taken by this money was particularly tortuous, because accounts in four different banks (one of them the Banque Privée Efg) were used to funnel the funds. For example, from Pearl—which, as we said, is registered in Hong Kong but operates in the UAE—part of the fees paid by Saipem were transferred to Sorung Associates, Inc., which is instead registered in Panama City but always controlled by Bedjaoui—“the typical modus operandi of those who want to launder money,” said one of the investigators.
The most interesting thing is that in the web of companies owned by Bedjaoui, there is one that has paid almost 2 million euros in consulting fees to Reda Hemche, the former chief of staff of the director general of Sonatrach, Algeria’s national oil company—the one that assigned the slew of aforementioned contracts to Saipem.
Hemche is wanted by Algerian authorities, who in 2009 launched an investigation into corruption that has crippled not only Sonatrach’s top management but also ensnared the former Algerian energy minister Chakib Khelil. In that investigation it was found that Hemche, as Khelil’s emissary, was the person responsible for awarding the Algerian state-run company’s contracts. His role was also highlighted by a diplomatic message written in February 2010 by the U.S. ambassador in Algiers and made public by WikiLeaks. “The ambassador met with the head of BP in Algeria, Akli Brihi.... Brihi explained that Sonatrach did not make corrupt agreements with major oil companies but with service companies such as the Italian company Saipem. The service company would present offers at inflated prices and then pay Sonatrach officials. It is what everyone thinks happened with the $1 billion contract concerning the Arzew plant for the liquificaction of natural gas given to Saipem without tender.... Brihi thinks that the minister of energy, Chakib Khelil, is responsible for the culture of corruption in Sonatrach. This confirms that the embassy has learned from other sources, according to which the person responsible for these dirty deals would be the former manager Hemche Reda, a relative of Khelil (Brihi called him nephew, others cousin).”
Among the various money movements made by Bedjaoui, we found that there were also transfers to Omar Habour, a businessman who Algerian newspapers feel is very close to the former energy minister Khelil, so much so that the two even share a property in Maryland, a few miles from Washington.
In searching Varone’s residence, in the bedroom, in a walk-in closet and a safe, the Guardia di Finanza found seventy 500-euro bills and four 200-euro bills, for a total of 35,000 euros in cash—nothing compared to 200 million, but a notable amount for “pocket change.”
It is now up to the Milan prosecutors to decide whether there is grounds to formally accuse Pietro Varone. If that is the case, it would be the second time in a few years that Saipem managers were accused of in corruption. A criminal proceeding against five managers in the San Donato Milanese engineering company accused of paying bribes to Nigerian politicians ended last year due to legal requirements, but for the same episode in the U.S., Saipem and Eni paid a $240 million fine to the Justice Department and a $125 million fine to the SEC.
In the settlement agreement signed July 7, 2010, with U.S. authorities, Eni and Saipem gave assurances that they had improved their internal compliance procedures and were now committed to “continue to respect ... the anti-corruption legislation in all its activities and those of its affiliates, its agents and subcontractors who interact with foreign public officials.” Paragraph 8 of the agreement ended with the statement that “these commitments, however, will not guarantee immunity with regard to any other relevant offense not declared to the Department of Justice at the time of signature of this agreement.”
In a statement issued yesterday, Eni said it “has also directly provided, and will continue to provide, full cooperation with the prosecutor’s office” in Milan.
After news of the Milan investigation was published in the American media, Wall Street expects the involvement of the Justice Department. The Justice Department will probably contact the Milan prosecutor’s office (with which it previously cooperated on the Nigerian matter) to ask for a copy of its dossier. The consequent risk is that of a new mega-fine.
In short, Saipem paid Pearl, even if not continuously, and Pearl, after “mixing the cards” a bit, paid consultant’s fees to both the then-chief of staff of Sonatrach and the partner of the then-Algerian minister of energy. Behind all of this were the front companies controlled by Farid Bedjaoui, which have apparently expressed gratitude to the Saipem official who signed a contract with Pearl. And this closes the circle.
Cutting bureaucratic red tape can help foster a culture of entrepreneurship and dynamism. But putting in place an effective regulatory and enforcement infrastructure can be equally important, especially in areas where consumers have difficulty assessing the value of products and the risks they can pose