The oil giants were acquitted Wednesday by an Italian court in what has been called the oil industry’s biggest corruption scandal, involving a $1.3 billion deal over an offshore oil field in Nigeria.
(CN) — An Italian court on Wednesday acquitted Royal Dutch Shell, Italian energy giant Eni and their former and current oil executives in a massive corruption scandal involving a lucrative offshore Nigerian oil field.
The trial was described as the oil industry’s biggest corruption case and centered on allegations of a sprawling $1.3 billion bribery scheme involving Shell and Eni executives. The oil giants allegedly worked out a corrupt deal with Nigerian officials, including then-President Goodluck Jonathan, to buy a much-coveted oilfield off the coast of Nigeria, known as OPL 245, in 2011.
Wednesday’s acquittals come at the end of a three-year trial inside a Milan courthouse that examined a sprawling global investigation with links to Africa, Europe and North America.
The Milanese judges are expected to provide their reasons for the acquittal in three months.
“This has been a difficult learning experience for us,” said Ben van Beurden, Shell’s chief executive, in a statement welcoming the court’s verdict.
Shell and Eni have insisted they did nothing wrong.
“Shell is a company that operates with integrity and we work hard every day to ensure our actions not only follow the letter and spirit of the law, but also live up to society’s wider expectations of us,” van Beurden said.
Eni said the acquittal proves the Rome-based company and its chief executive, Claudio Descalzi, “behaved in a lawful and correct manner.”
The ruling was a major blow to Italian prosecutors and anti-corruption groups that helped bring the allegations of corruption to light.
“We await the details of how the judges reached this ruling, but believe that this verdict shows just how hard it is to hold the fossil fuel industry to account,” said Barnaby Pace, a senior campaigner at Global Witness, a London-based anti-corruption group that investigated the Nigerian deal.
This is not the end of legal proceedings and it could take years before appeals end in Italy’s three-tiered court system. A criminal investigation into the OPL 245 deal remains open in the Netherlands, where Shell is headquartered. Meanwhile, a criminal trial against Shell and Eni’s Nigerian subsidiaries is underway in Nigeria. U.S. authorities, meanwhile, have dropped their investigations into the deal, Shell said.
“Today’s verdict does not mark the final word in this scandal for Shell and Eni,” Pace said.
In December 2017, Milan judges ordered the companies and defendants to stand trial. Milan prosecutors said the corrupt deal was negotiated and enacted between 2009 and 2014 in a complex web of interests.
In court documents, prosecutors said the scheme involved top oil company executives, two former British secret service members, shady bank transfers and cash payments, many of which went to former Nigerian oil minister Dan Etete, who allegedly obtained the lucrative oilfield through a company called Malabu Oil and Gas Ltd. Etete was among 13 individuals acquitted Wednesday.
Among those accused of international corruption were Paolo Scaroni, who was CEO and executive director of Eni at the time of the alleged bribery. Scaroni is now the president of the Milan soccer team, one of Italy’s most famous and prestigious clubs. Also facing charges were Malcolm Brinded, former chief exploration director at Shell, and Peter Robinson, a former vice president for sub-Saharan Africa at Shell.
Two middlemen were convicted in the case in September 2018 and sentenced to four years for international corruption. The middlemen – Emeka Obi and Gianluca Di Nardo – were convicted in an abbreviated closed-door legal procedure.
Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.