Ex-Rolls Royce Workers Plead Guilty in Foreign Bribery Scheme

COLUMBUS, Ohio (CN) – Three former Rolls-Royce employees pleaded guilty for their roles in a bribery scheme to give the British engineering company’s U.S. subsidiary an advantage in bidding for a contract on a gas pipeline in Asia, the Justice Department said Tuesday.

A trio of former Rolls-Royce employees entered guilty pleas in Columbus, Ohio federal court for conspiring to violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

James Finley, Keith Barnett, and Aloysius Johannes Jozef Zuurhout admitted they had used commission payments from Rolls-Royce to bribe foreign officials.

U.S. District Judge Edmund Sargus also unsealed an indictment Tuesday against Petros Contoguris, the founder and CEO of the oil and gas company Gravitas & CIE. International Ltd.

Contoguris is charged with conspiring with the three Rolls-Royce employees and others to pay kickbacks to an international engineering consulting firm’s employees. Prosecutors say he also arranged to pay bribes to an unnamed, high-ranking Kazakhstan official and was a key decision maker in the development of the gas pipeline.

Andreas Kohler, an employee of the consulting firm, also pleaded guilty in federal court.

A Kazakh businessman whose identity is known to the grand jury acted as a go-between for Contoguris and the foreign official, the 25-page indictment says.

“Today’s indictment and guilty pleas reveal that those associated with this corruption did knowingly conspire to break the law for their own personal gain,” Stephen Richardson, an assistant director of the FBI’s criminal investigative division, said in a statement. “No one is above the law, so let today’s announcement be a warning to those who may try to perpetrate a similar scheme that the FBI will aggressively pursue those who attempt to bribe foreign officials for an unfair advantage in the global marketplace.”

In an emailed statement, Rolls-Royce spokesman Joel Reuter said that the company could not comment on the action against the defendants.

“Rolls-Royce has committed to full ongoing cooperation with the Department of Justice,” he said.

According to the Justice Department, the former Rolls-Royce employees concealed the payments as commissions to Contoguris, who helped the firm secure a $145 million contract with Asia Gas Pipeline, a developer of a gas pipeline between Central Asia and China.

Under the contract, Rolls-Royce was to supply 11 of 14 gas turbine compressors, according to the indictment.

The indictment lists 10 illegal payments from Asia Gas Pipeline bank accounts in Kazakhstan to Rolls-Royce banks accounts in Mount Vermont, Ohio between Jan. 14, 2010 and July 5, 2013 for the $145 million contract.

From April 27, 2010 to March 8, 2012, seven “corrupt commission payments” were wired from Rolls-Royce accounts to Gravitas bank accounts in the United Kingdom for almost $1.95 million, according to the indictment.

State-owned oil and gas companies entered into a joint venture agreement to build the gas pipeline, the filing says. Several companies, including Rolls-Royce, were bidding to win the contract.

Rolls-Royce paid a percentage of commissions to Contoguris’ company after he was retained to pay the bribes, prosecutors allege. After Rolls-Royce won the contract in November 2009, he passed some of those payments to employees of the consulting firm and knew a share of the money would end up with the government official, according to the indictment.

The scheme ran over 14 years beginning in 1999 and continued through 2013, the Justice Department said in a news release. The trio of former Rolls-Royce employees are charged with bribing foreign officials in multiple countries to benefit their employer and retain business with overseas governments.

In January, Rolls-Royce reached a deferred prosecution agreement with the Justice Department, the Serious Fraud Office in the U.K. and prosecutors in Brazil. The company agreed to pay an $800 million penalty to resolve claims that it paid bribes to obtain export contracts to avoid prosecution.

The Justice Department said that law enforcement in Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Singapore and Turkey had assisted in the case against the former Rolls-Royce employees.

As of Tuesday, Contoguris was still a fugitive. The Greek national resides outside of the U.S. and lives in Istanbul, Turkey, according to the Oct. 12 grand jury indictment.

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