Oil giant Total to pay $245M in US bribery case

French oil giant Total to pay $245 million in US bribery case involving contracts in Iran

Associated Press

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) -- French oil giant Total agreed Wednesday to pay $242.5 million to settle criminal charges alleging the company used middlemen to pay bribes to win lucrative contracts in Iran.

Court papers filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria indicate Total paid $60 million in bribes between 1995 and 2004 that allowed it to re-renter the Iranian oil and gas market. The bribes helped Total land contracts with the state-owned National Iranian Oil Company to develop oil and gas fields in and around Iran's Sirri Island in the Persian Gulf. The bribes also helped Total land a contract to develop a portion of the South Pars gas field, the world's largest gas field.

The case was jointly pursued by the U.S. and French governments. The Paris prosecutor's office announced Wednesday that it wanted to pursue corruption charges against the oil giant and its chief executive after years of investigation.

An investigation was opened in 2006 into the Paris-based oil company and CEO Christophe de Margerie for alleged abuse of company assets and corruption of foreign agents in connection with oil and gas contracts.

The prosecutor's office said Wednesday it was prepared to move forward with the case, but a judge still needs to decide if there is enough evidence.

Total issued a statement Wednesday reiterating that it has not violated French law. As to the U.S. case, the company's chief financial officer, Patrick de la Chevardiere, said the agreements "allow us to put an end to this investigation."

While Total's press statement does not admit guilt, the court papers filed in the U.S. contain a statement of facts, agreed to by Total, admitting that it made $60 million in illegal payments under U.S. law.

In the U.S., Acting Assistant Attorney General Mythili Raman the case is the first coordinated action by French and U.S. law enforcement in a major foreign bribery case.

"Our two countries are working more closely today than ever before to combat corporate corruption, and Total, which bought business through bribes, now faces the criminal consequences across two continents," Raman said.

The charges were settled under what is called a deferred prosecution agreement, which requires the company to pay the $242.5 million, agree to cooperate with authorities and enter a compliance program for the next three years to avoid further action.

Neil MacBride, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, which prosecuted the case, said the "deferred prosecution agreement, with both its punitive and forward-looking compliance provisions, dovetails with our goals of bringing violators to justice and preventing future misconduct."

The fines levied against Total were not unexpected — the company announced last year it had set aside hundreds of millions of dollars in light of the U.S. investigation.

The company most recently reported a quarterly profit of $2 billion.

The case was brought in the U.S. under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), which prohibits companies that are publicly traded in the U.S. from making corrupt payments to foreign government officials to obtain business.

Last month, New York-based Ralph Lauren Corp. paid $1.6 million to settle a case under the FCPA alleging bribe payments to Argentine import officials. Wal-Mart is also under investigation on allegations that company officials authorized millions of dollars in bribes in Mexico and other countries to speed up getting building permits and gain other favors.

Also on Wednesday, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission entered into an order against Total requiring it to pay an additional $153 million.

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Associated Press reporter Sarah DiLorenzo contributed to this report from Paris.

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