denies wrongdoing in Nigerian corruption case
The chief executive of Eni has defended himself against allegations of corruption related to a $1.3bn Nigerian oil deal and said he still wants to go ahead with the giant offshore development involved in the scandal.
Claudio Descalzi told the Financial Times that he did nothing wrong in Eni’s 2011 acquisition of an exploration block estimated to contain up to 9bn barrels of oil — enough to cover Nigeria’s current total annual production for more than a decade.
A Milan prosecutor this month filed charges against Mr Descalzi, who was head of the Italian oil and gas group’s exploration and production business at the time of the payment, as well as 10 other individuals, including his predecessor as chief executive, Paolo Scaroni.
The charges relate to allegations that most of the $1.3bn payment by Eni and its partner Royal Dutch Shell was funnelled via the Nigerian government to the country’s then oil minister and other individuals as bribes.
Mr Descalzi said it was a legitimate deal for a commercially attractive asset and that his knowledge of what happened to the money ended with its deposit in a Nigerian government escrow account. “Eni did not do anything wrong,” he said. “At every stage, we have acted in compliance with all applicable law . . .
Eni and Shell paid the government of Nigeria, and were not involved with the government decision on how to use such money. “If you buy a house, what the seller does with the money is not your responsibility.”
Eni was “very close” to making a final investment decision on the licence, known as OPL 245, added Mr Descalzi, although the company would first have to win an appeal against a temporary forfeiture of the asset ordered by a Nigerian court in January as part of an investigation into the case. The Italian charges, which followed a two-year investigation, have come at an awkward time for Mr Descalzi.
The Italian government, which owns 30 per cent of Eni, must decide within weeks whether to support the renewal of his contract when it expires in April. Mr Descalzi, who became chief executive in 2014, has been widely praised by investors for his stewardship of Eni through the oil market downturn, pushing through deep cost cuts and asset sales, as well as notching up big exploration successes.
Concern that his job could be jeopardised by the Nigeria imbroglio has caused jitters among shareholders, although Massimo Bonisoli, analyst at Equita, said Mr Descalzi’s reappointment was “quite likely”.
Mr Descalzi said he “would like to be reappointed in order to continue Eni’s successful strategy”. It will be up to an Italian judge to rule whether the charges filed against Mr Descalzi by Fabio De Pasquale, the Milan prosecutor who led the investigation, should result in a trial.
A decision is not expected until late this year and a trial, if one were to take place, would not begin until 2018. Eni, which was charged as a company in Italy this month by the Milan prosecutor, has denied any wrongdoing. Shell, which has also been charged, said on Monday it did not believe the Milan prosecutor’s request for a trial was “justified”.
“We are confident that this will be determined in the next stages of the proceedings,” it added. “We continue to take this matter seriously and co-operate with the authorities.”