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Malabu scandal: Trial of 9 Shell, Eni executives starts June 20

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The trial of nine current and former executives or contractors from Italy’s Eni and British-Dutch giant, Royal Dutch Shell, including ENI Chief Executive Claudio Descalzi, over a $1.3 billion oil deal in Nigeria, will begin in Milan, Italy, on June 20.

(COMBO) This combination of pictures created on December 20, 2017 shows the logo of a Shell petrol station in central London on January 17, 2014 and the logo of the Italian oil and gas company Eni in San Donato Milanese, near Milan on October 27, 2017. Italian giant Eni and fellow petroleum company Shell will stand trial in Italy over allegations of bribery and corruption in the 2011 purchase of an offshore oil block in Nigeria according to Italian media reports on December 20, 2017.
A judge in Milan ordered Eni, Shell and key figures such as Eni chief Claudio Descalzi and his predecessor Paolo Scaroni to stand trial in proceedings to begin March 5.
/ AFP PHOTO /

According to a Reuters review of court filings Monday, the nine executives were accused by Italian prosecutors of paying bribes to secure the licence to explore a large offshore oilfield in 2011.

Seven years ago, two middlemen launched civil lawsuits to seek payment for helping arrange a $1.3 billion oil deal in Nigeria.

If found guilty, the individuals on trial face possible jail terms for bribery but they have all denied wrong doing

The criminal trial will proceed in Milan on June 20 after a short initial hearing on May 14.

Some of the key issues in the trial came to light during the two separate civil suits filed by a Nigerian, Emeka Obi, and a former Russian diplomat, Ednan Agaev, a Reuters review of court filings shows.

Both men said they were owed millions of dollars by a Nigerian company, Malabu Oil and Gas, for arranging meetings with Shell and Eni.

The judge in Obi’s case upheld evidence that Obi arranged meetings between former Nigerian oil minister Dan Etete, who was convicted of money laundering in an unrelated case in France in 2007, and representatives of Eni, and that he negotiated on Etete’s behalf with Shell.

The judge held that in addition, documents produced in Agaev’s case showed that when Eni and Shell paid for the licence, they deposited more than one billion dollars into a Nigerian government escrow account in London but most of the money later ended up with Malabu, which was controlled by Etete.

The judges found that, in a conflict of interests, Etete had a stake in Malabu and was also oil minister when the Nigerian government awarded the company the licence to explore the field in 1998, a decision that was reversed in 2001, reinstated in 2006 and later challenged by Shell.

These details helped Italian prosecutors put together their case, industry insiders say.

Etete denies charges of bribery for channelling money from the deal to Nigerian politicians.

He and his lawyers did not respond to requests for comment by phone and email.

Shell said by email that if improper payments were shown to have taken place, they were not made with Shell’s “knowledge, authorisation or on its behalf.”

The company said it believes the judges will find there is “no case” against Shell or its ex-employees.

Eni said by email that it could not comment on the case. It has previously said it concluded the deal with the Nigerian government without the involvement of intermediaries and that it had no commercial agreement with Malabu.

But in her decision on Obi’s civil case in London in July 2013, Lady Justice Elizabeth Gloster upheld Mr Etete’s control of Malabu, court records show.

Basing her decision on testimony and documents, she said Etete had a stake in Malabu when it was awarded OPL 245 in 1998 and had been “the principal beneficial owner” since later that year.

She said Mr Obi had meetings with Shell representatives before the OPL 245 deal, though she did not say how many, and that he frequently met officials from Eni.

On one occasion, Etete, Descalzi, Obi and Agaev sat together in a Milan restaurant at a dinner for the “the main personalities” to meet and assess the seriousness of their intentions, she said.

She said Obi should be awarded at least $100 million for his work as a “dealmaker”, the court records show.

Agaev launched arbitration to seek a $65 million fee from Malabu for his work as a go-between and eventually reached an out-of-court settlement, details of which were not disclosed.

While the arbitration was under way, he asked a court in New York to freeze a Nigerian government account in London that held 74 million dollars, most of it due to be transferred to Malabu.

The court said it had no authority to freeze the money but reviewed documents showing Eni and Shell had deposited just over one billion dollars into the account as payment for OPL 245 in May 2011.

A further 208 million dollars was released from escrow as a “signature bonus” for the government, court records show.

Around 800 million dollars was transferred to Malabu in August 2011 and the rest was frozen pending the civil cases.

Agaev declined to comment about his civil case or the Milan trial.

Obi could not be reached for comment and attorneys who have represented him declined to pass on his contact details.

Eni and Shell said their payments were above board as they went directly to the Nigerian government.

JP Morgan Chase, which ran the escrow account, has denied negligence.

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