Total boss under formal investigation

A French judge has placed the chief executive of the Total oil group under formal investigation on suspicion of paying bribes to secure a major gas-field deal in Iran.

Christophe de Margerie, who is already under investigation over the Iraq “oil-for-food” bribes scandal, was officially warned of the new accusations on Thursday night after he had spent more than a day in detention.

The judge placed Margerie, who has only been Total’s chief executive since February, under investigation for suspected “corruption of foreign public agents and misuse of corporate assets”, a legal source said.

Margerie was given conditional release.

The French oil company is suspected of paying top Iranian officials nearly 100-million Swiss francs ($80-million) through two Swiss bank accounts to win a contract for the South Pars offshore gas field in 1997.

Margerie was detained by French police on Wednesday before being transferred to a serious financial-crime unit a day later, judicial officials told Agence France-Press. Four other serving and former Total executives were also detained but later released without charge.

In a statement, Total said that its chief executive had been placed “under formal investigation in proceedings related to the development of the South Pars project in Iran”.

Being placed under judicial investigation is one step short of being charged with a crime in the French legal system. It does not necessarily mean that 55-year-old Margerie is heading for trial.

A case can be dropped if a judge is unable to sustain his accusations against an individual.

In the statement Total expressed “its full support for its employees and confirms that the agreements for the development of the South Pars project were entered into in compliance with applicable law”.

It also said that the company was “confident” that the “investigation will establish the absence of any illegal activities and reaffirms that Total adheres to a strict code of conduct regardless of the difficulties linked to its activities and the environments in which it operates”.

The suspicions centre on a contract Total won from the Iranian oil company NIOC for the South Pars field.

The French judge is partly relying on testimony given by an employee of Norwegian oil company Statoil, who revealed the existence of a corruption system in Iran during an investigation in Norway.

According to sources, money was paid to Iranian officials between 1996 and 2003 when Margerie was Total’s Middle East director.

Last year he was charged with complicity with fraud and corruption by the same judge as part of an investigation into a French link to the “oil-for-food” scandal in Iraq.

Companies were said to have paid money to get oil deals from Iraq while it was under UN sanctions during the Saddam Hussein years.

Several other Total executives and former executives, including Patrick Rambaud, who was also questioned over the Iran deal, have also been put under investigation as part of the “oil-for-food” scandal.

Known in the company as “Big Moustache,” Margerie was promoted to head of Total in February in succession to Thierry Desmarest, who had overseen huge expansion of the group and is president of the supervisory board.

Margerie studied at the elite ESCP business school in Paris, joining the finance department of Total in 1974, rising to the managing committee in 1992 and becoming director for the Middle East region in 1995. — AFP

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