A retired Swiss oil executive who previously said he had knowledge of illicit dealings over a Nigerian oil block involving Royal Dutch Shell Plc and Eni SpA reversed his statements at a trial in Milan Wednesday.
“I’ve never had contact with Shell,” ex-executive Richard Granier-Deferre said. “I’ve never had relations with people from Eni in my entire career.”
The trial centers on Oil Prospecting License 245, offshore Nigeria, which has snowballed into one of the largest scandals over alleged corruption in the industry’s history. Italian prosecutors are arguing that when Shell and Eni paid more than $1 billion to settle legal disputes over the block and acquire rights to develop it, much of that payment went into bribes and kickbacks. On Friday, Shell said it is also facing criminal charges in its home country of The Netherlands over the block.
As Milan prosecutors grilled Granier-Deferre Wednesday via teleconference, he said those previous statements were made under “pressure” and he has no evidence the oil companies participated in illegal payments.
The reversal is a setback for prosecutors. Shell and Eni have also argued the transaction was appropriate and legal. Milan prosecutors weren’t immediately available to comment.
Granier-Deferre was convicted of money laundering in a French court in 2007 along with former Nigerian oil minister Dan Etete, who is a defendant in a criminal trial which is ongoing in a Milan court, where prosecutors allege that he and others personally benefited from a $1.3 billion 2011 oil license transaction with Shell and Eni. Etete has denied wrongdoing in the case.
In 2016, Granier-Deferre made statements to Swiss investigators suggesting Shell and Eni executives were part of a network of bribes and kickbacks, and drew a flow chart in 2010 to show how the arrangements were structured.
Prosecutors were hoping Granier-Deferre, through his connection with Etete and work on OPL 245, had insight into how payment networks operated. In 2016, Granier-Deferre told investigators that the flow chart he drew demonstrated corruption. It shows arrows pointing from an entity called “X” to another called “EVP” to a group called “management” and further on to “M1” and “M2.”
Under questioning Wednesday, Granier-Deferre testified that “management” referred not to bosses of Shell and Eni, but to employees of another company called Malabu Oil and Gas Ltd. Malabu was the previous owner of OPL 245. He didn’t clarify what EVP meant.
Prosecutors also asked Granier-Deferre about a message sent to Etete in 2011 that says: “My Dearest Papa, I have just been advised of the arrival of a beautiful baby of 6.1kg. This news would be a total satisfaction for me.” Granier-Deferre received a $6.1 million payment related to OPL 245 around that time, prosecutors said.
In court, Granier-Deferre said the $6.1 million payment was to do with OPL 245, but was from a company called Rocky Top. He said he was unaware of who owned Rocky Top and that the payment was for a legitimate invoice.
In emailed responses to questions about Granier-Deferre’s testimony, representatives for Shell and Eni both reiterated that payments made over OPL 245 were appropriate. In a statement, a Shell spokeswoman said if there were bribes paid around the license, the company was unaware of them.
“There is no place for bribery or corruption in our company,” the Shell spokeswoman said.