MILAN (AP) – Shell and Eni and former and current executives of the two oil giants will stand trial Monday in Milan, Italy, in connection with a $1.1 billion bribery scandal linked to bids for one of Nigeria’s most lucrative oil blocks.
Eni’s current CEO, Claudio Descalzi, is one of 13 individuals charged in the case involving the 2011 purchase of the OPL245 block. Other defendants include his predecessor, Paolo Scaroni, two former top Shell executives, a former Nigerian Minister of Petroleum, Dan Etete, and a series of middlemen and advisers. The companies themselves are also corporate defendants.
The case is one of the largest corporate bribery cases ever, anti-corruption campaigners say.
Milan prosecutors allege that $520 million of the $1.1 billion paid into an escrow account was converted into cash and distributed as bribes, while several hundred million more went to a former oil minister.
Milan prosecutors also have opened an investigation into allegations that Eni legal representatives tried to throw investigators off of the Nigeria case. Authorities searched the legal representatives’ offices in early February.
Both Anglo-Dutch Shell and Eni have denied wrongdoing, expressing confidence that the trial would exonerate both the companies and individuals.
Both companies are also under investigation in the case in the Netherlands and face charges in Nigeria.
The Italian charges followed similar indictments last year in Nigeria that target a Shell subsidiary, not the parent company. In Nigeria, prosecutors allege bribes of more than $800 million were made to government officials and a businessman for the block’s license and that the Nigerian government only got $210 million from the deal.
Global Witness, an anti-corruption non-governmental agency that filed a criminal case that aided prosecutors’ investigations, said the Milan trial was the biggest corporate bribery case in history, involving the equivalent of Nigeria’s entire health budget.
Both companies are charged with corruption in Nigeria over the accord, which allegedly saw Nigeria’s former president Goodluck Jonathan and his oil minister pocket bribes. The deal saw the Nigerian government act as an intermediary between the oil majors and Malabu Oil and Gas, a Nigerian company allegedly controlled by Etete.
Allegations of corruption and bribery have mounted in the years since, forcing Shell and Eni to repeatedly maintain that they acquired the rights to the lucrative block in line with Nigerian law. But email exchanges between Shell management cited in a report by corruption watchdog Global Witness, and seen by AFP, suggest that Shell was aware the money was likely to be funnelled to individuals, including Etete and Jonathan.
Etete was also ordered to stand trial by the Milan court. Nigeria’s anti-graft agency filed corruption charges against Shell and Eni in March last year, accusing 11 defendants, including Etete, of “official corruption” in connection with the oil block deal. Jonathan has denied receiving kickbacks, saying in January 2017 that he has not been “accused, indicted or charged for corruptly collecting monies” linked to the deal.
The OPL245 oil block has been a source of contention for almost two decades. In 1998, the block was awarded by Etete to Malabu Oil and Gas. Years of legal wrangling between Malabu, the Nigerian government and Shell ensued, with Shell ultimately winning rights to the block in a partnership with Eni. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, who has promised to fight corruption in Nigeria’s oil sector, has said “mind-boggling” sums have been stolen from the public purse.