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Aibel Pleads Guilty

Aibel Group Ltd. of the United Kingdom pleaded guilty yesterday to violating the antibribery provisions of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and failing to comply with the terms of its prior deferred prosecution agreement. It admitted making previously undisclosed illegal payments to Nigerian customs officials through its freight forwarder in return for preferential treatment.

From 2002 to 2005, Aibel arranged at least 378 corrupt payments to Nigerian officials totaling about $2.1 million. The payments were coordinated largely through an affiliate’s office in Houston and were paid through a freight forwarding company. Aibel’s work in Nigeria involved a deepwater oil drilling operation known as the Bonga Project, for which the company provided engineering, procurement and subsea construction equipment.

At a hearing yesterday in the Southern District of Texas, Aibel pleaded guilty to single conspiracy and substantive counts of violating the FCPA. Aibel also admitted that it had not complied with a deferred prosecution agreement it had entered into with the Justice Department in February 2007 regarding the same underlying conduct. As part of the plea agreement, it will pay a $4.2 million criminal fine and serve two years on organizational probation. Among other things, it is required to report periodically its progress in implementing antibribery compliance measures.

Aibel is owned by Herkules Private Equity Fund and Ferd Capital, both of Norway. They acquired the company in June 2007 from a private equity group led by Candover, 3i and JPMorgan Partners, which bought Vetco Gray UK Ltd. and its affiliate Aibel in July 2004 from ABB Oil & Gas. When its current Norwegian owners acquired Aibel, it was already subject to the January 2007 deferred prosecution agreement. The new owners were required by the DOJ to ensure the company’s compliance with the terms of the deferred prosecution agreement after the acquisition.

The Justice Department’s release didn’t name the “major international freight forwarding and customs clearance company” Aibel used to make the illegal payments. But it explained that this is the third time since July 2004 that entities affiliated with Aibel have pleaded guilty to violating the FCPA. On July 6, 2004, Vetco Gray UK Ltd. pleaded guilty to violating the FCPA’s antibribery provisions by paying more than $1 million in bribes to officials of the National Petroleum Investment Management Services, a Nigerian government agency. And in February 2007, three wholly-owned subsidiaries of Vetco pleaded guilty to violating the antibribery provisions of the FCPA. As part of the February 2007 plea, the Vetco companies agreed to pay a combined $26 million criminal fine. Although Aibel, which was then also wholly-owned by Vetco, was not fined, it was required to enter into a deferred prosecution agreement whereby it accepted responsibility for similar conduct by its employees. It admtted Friday that it was not in compliance with the deferred prosecution agreement.

The DOJ said in February 2007 that Vetco’s bribes in Nigeria were paid to customs officials through a “major international freight forwarding and customs clearance company,” the same description used in the DOJ’s release yesterday. Since February 2007, about a dozen leading oil and gas-related companies have received letters from the DOJ and SEC asking for details about their relationship with Swiss logistics giant, Panalpina. Companies that have said they received requests include Shell, Schlumberger, Tidewater, Nabors Industries, Transocean, GlobalSantaFe Corp., Noble Corp., Pride International and Global Industries.

Panalpina said in its 2008 half-yearly report (available here) that it would divest its domestic operations in Nigeria to a local investment group and retain no ownership or operating interest. It completed the transaction earlier this month. It also said it was cooperating with an investigation by the DOJ and SEC and that its U.S. subsidiary had been instructed to produce documents and other information about services to certain customers in Nigeria, Kazakhstan and Saudi Arabia.

Regarding yesterday’s plea, the DOJ said Aibel self-disclosed the current FCPA violations as well as those in February 2007 and agreed to take significant remedial steps.

View the DOJ’s November 21, 2008 release here.

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