Blog / Sept. 30, 2015

UK investigators drag their feet over scandal-hit oil company

Last month it was revealed that the UK’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO) would investigate a British oil company that had been making payments to officials in a highly unstable African country. The company was paying figures connected to the local government as it attempted to secure its business interests in the region – something capable of breaching of the UK’s Bribery Act.

That news came hot on the heels of Global Witness’s exposé of UK oil company Soco International’s payments to a corrupt and dangerous army official in Democratic Republic of Congo. In 2014, we also published evidence that Soco paid a government minister and a state official with the Congolese national parks authority to grease the wheels of its operation in Virunga National Park, Congo’s iconic and UNESCO-protected World Heritage site.

But the company under investigation by the British authorities is not Soco – it’s Soma Oil & Gas, chaired by Lord Michael Howard, which made “capacity building payments” worth nearly half a million dollars which went to Somali civil servants.

So the question is: what will it take for the SFO to also launch an investigation into Soco’s activities in Virunga? If UK authorities do not even investigate well-documented cases of abuses, then companies that commit crimes in the quest for profit will enjoy complete impunity. If the SFO won’t act the Department of Justice in the US – where Soco’s Delaware subsidiary employs its American executive directors – should step in.

Whitewashed allegations

NGOs, journalists and the makers of the Virunga documentary have made allegations against Soco  since at least 2013, claims which have been backed up by independently-gathered testimony as well as undercover filming. According to the evidence, the company and its contractors have made illicit payments, appear to have paid off armed rebels and benefited from fear and violence as they sought to gain and retain access to Virunga for oil work.

So far, though, the company has been allowed to police itself. Soco has tried to sweep the controversy under the carpet by appointing its own lawyers to carry out an opaque review of the allegations – and that came only after concerted pressure; it clearly hoped this would bring an end to the difficult questions.

However the review was, predictably, a whitewash.

A partial, opaque investigation

In March Soco announced that several months earlier it had quietly appointed Clifford Chance to look into the claims of illicit payments and corruption. Clifford Chance was an unlikely candidate for the role of independent investigator, having been Soco’s solicitor since 2011.

Soco’s board presented the findings of the review to its shareholders as a 500-word verbal summary; neither the full report nor the terms of reference are to be published. The company’s embattled chairman faced calls to resign at the company’s AGM over his handling of the scandal.

The wording of the summary was carefully chosen. Clifford Chance found that allegations of bribery against its client were “substantially inaccurate”, without elaborating on how or going so far as to say that the accusations were wrong or unfounded. The statement also said that the lawyers “found no evidence” to support the claims of complicity in human rights abuses and intimidation.

Local campaigners in Virunga, some of whom have suffered intimidation and scare tactics in the course of their activism protecting the national park, wrote to Clifford Chance to point out that no-one from the firm had ever contacted any Congolese civil society or anyone connected to Virunga National Park to ask for submissions to the review.

The firm wrote back, saying that Soco “provided us with access to the personnel, processes and documents we requested, sufficient to advise the Board as to the appropriate steps to be taken.” It said client confidentiality prevented it from responding to specific concerns about the review, but that it feels that its work for Soco is consistent with its “commitment to the principles espoused by the UN Global Compact.”

Perhaps the Clifford Chance team, which included partner Luke Tolaini, found no evidence of wrongdoing because they weren’t looking in the right places.

Illicit payments to the Minister and the park official pushing Soco’s oil project

Clifford Chance wrote that it found no evidence of payments “made to secure any unentitled advantage or to curry special treatment” – acts that would potentially leave Soco open to criminal charges under the Bribery Act.

However it is difficult to reconcile their statement with the fact that evidence for some of the special treatment Soco received from officials it paid is already in the public domain. Two cases in particular were detailed in Global Witness’s report ‘Drillers in the Mist’, which we asked Clifford Chance to take into account in its review.

First Celestin Vunabandi, who was at the time the Congo’s Minister for Planning, has been recorded saying that Soco paid him to promote the oil project in Virunga. His LinkedIn page even says he worked as a consultant for Soco.

Most damagingly, Soco’s then Field Operations Supervisor in eastern Congo, Julien Lechenault, was covertly recorded saying that the company had paid for a staged pro-oil demonstration and that this had been done “via Vunabandi, who is the minister.” Lechenault went on: “He’s our friend. He knows everyone. Just need to send cash and it’s done.”

The second example is Guy Mbayma, who as a leading official in Congo’s national parks authority was receiving monthly payments directly from Soco, according to his boss. He was filmed in March 2012 telling Virunga park rangers they would receive “money, money, money” if they worked on the “inside team” with Soco, but that if they objected to oil exploration they would be fired immediately.

Clifford Chance did find “non-material instances where those with whom the Company worked made payments in breach of Group policy.” But they fail to provide any more information on the size or destination of these payments. If payments contrary to company policy were indeed made then they cannot be dismissed as “non-material” without elaboration, especially as company policy may be thought likely to reflect UK law. Soco said that it had instructed Clifford Chance to “keep the relevant UK authorities appraised [sic] of the scope, progress and outcomes of its review”; as such information on those “non-material” payments should have been passed on to the police.

Soco next

Soco has faced repeated accusations and made unconvincing denials. On the same day that Soco released the summary findings of the Clifford Chance review that, it said, exonerated the company, Global Witness was able to publish cheques showing Soco paid tens of thousands of dollars to the scandal-ridden Major Burimba Feruzi, despite the company’s previous specific denial. It has since admitted to financing the soldiers that guarded its base, who were under the command of Feruzi.

Soco’s track record in Virunga suggests that the company cannot be trusted to honestly assess whether or not it is guilty of the various allegations of wrongdoing, or whether the breaches are serious or not. A one-page summary of an investigation by its own lawyers, a partial review at best, is hardly more convincing.

Soco International says it has not breached the UK Bribery Act. It should be next on the SFO’s investigation list, so we can know for sure.

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