The evidence points to systemic corruption – from the top down. In this case Italy has championed the rule of law over abusive corporate power.
Shell and Italian oil giant Eni have been ordered to stand trial in Milan on charges of aggravated international corruption for their role in a 2011 $1.1bn deal for Nigerian oil block OPL 245. Mrs Justice Barbara handed down the ruling today and set March 5 as the date for the trial to begin.
Claudio Descales, Eni’s current CEO, Paolo Scaroni, the former CEO and Roberto Casula, the chief operations and technology officer, were also ordered to face trial alongside four former Shell Group staff members, including Malcolm Brinded CBE, former Executive Director for Upstream International and two former MI6 agents then employed by Shell.
No company as large as Shell Group or such senior executives of a major oil company have ever stood trial for bribery offences.
The investigation by the Milan public prosecutor was triggered by a complaint filed in Autumn 2013 by Global Witness, The Corner House, Re:Common and Nigerian anti-corruption campaigner Dotun Oloko. The case has also been investigated in Nigeria and the United States following the groups’ complaints. Public prosecutors in The Netherlands are also investigating the case.
“The Nigerian people lost out on over $1 billion dollars, equivalent to the country’s entire health budget, as a result of this corrupt deal. They deserve to know the truth about what happened to their missing millions.
"We welcome the prosecutor’s efforts to bring this case to trial. It will be the biggest corporate bribery trial in history – and act as a warning to others who see corruption as a route for quick financial wins”, said Simon Taylor, co-founder of Global Witness.
In a statement today Shell said “We are disappointed by the outcome of the preliminary hearing and the decision to indict Shell and its former employees. We believe the trial judges will conclude that there is no case against Shell or its former employees.”
Eni said: “Eni’s Board of Directors has reaffirmed its confidence that the company was not involved in alleged corrupt activities in relation to the transaction.
"The Board of Directors also confirmed its full confidence that chief executive Claudio Descalzi was not involved in the alleged illegal conduct and, more broadly, in his role as head of the company. Eni expresses its full confidence in the judicial process and that the trial will ascertain and confirm the correctness and integrity of its conduct.”
Antonio Tricarico of Italian NGO Re:Common said: “Prime Minister Renzi was utterly wrong in 2014 when he defended Mr Descalzi’s appointment as Eni’s CEO, by warning that it would ‘not allow a media scoop to put jobs at risk, or a notice of investigation issued on newspapers to change the business policy of a country’.
"If the deal for OPL 245 represents business as usual for Italy’s biggest company, partly controlled by the government, prosecutors were right to investigate and right to bring this matter before the courts. Renzi should apologise to the Italian and Nigerian public”.
“This case heralds the dawning of the age of accountability, a world where even the most powerful corporations can no longer hide their wrongdoing and avoid justice.” Said Lanre Suraju, Chairman of Nigerian NGO Human and Environmental Development Agenda.
For years, Shell had claimed that it only paid the Nigerian Government for the oil block. But after the joint investigations of Global Witness and Finance Uncovered, Shell confessed it had dealt with former oil minister Dan Etete, via his front company Malabu.
Dan Etete was convicted of money laundering in France in 2007. Etete had awarded the OPL 245 oil block to his secretly owned company while serving as oil minister.
In December 2016, the Milan Public Prosecutor alleged that $520 million from the deal was converted into cash and intended to be paid to the then Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan, members of the government and other Nigerian government officials.
The prosecutor further alleges that money was also channelled to Eni executives with $50 million in cash delivered to the home of Eni’s then Head of Business for Sub-Saharan Africa, Roberto Casula.
Nigerian authorities have also filed charges against a Shell subsidiary and Eni as well as several of their staff. In January Nigerian law enforcement also charged Mohammed Adoke, the former Nigerian Minister of Justice and Attorney General with money laundering over his receipt of $2.2m in alleged proceeds of the OPL 245 deal.
Abusive corporate power
The Nigerian government successfully recovered US$85m in proceeds of the deal from the UK. The money had previously been frozen as suspected proceeds of crime at the request of Italian authorities.
The Nigerian government has also issued a billion dollar civil claim against JP Morgan for their role as a banker to the deal. JP Morgan has stated that they consider the allegation against them to be “unsubstantiated and without merit”.
“This is not a case involving a few rotten apples,” said Nick Hildyard of Corner House. “The evidence points to systemic corruption – from the top down. In this case Italy has championed the rule of law over abusive corporate power. The world waits to see if the UK and The Netherlands, where Shell is based, will have the backbone to follow suit.”
Brendan Montague is editor of The Ecologist.