Friday, March 30, 2007

French Judge grills Total chief over corruption accusations

Source: Yahoo News.

A French judge on Thursday questioned Total oil chief executive Christophe de Margerie over corruption suspicions surrounding a major gas deal in Iran, bringing formal charges a step closer.

The French oil giant is suspected of paying top Iranian officials nearly 100 million Swiss francs (60 million euros, 80 million dollars) through two Swiss bank accounts to win a contract in 1997

Margerie was detained by police on Wednesday and on Thursday was transferred to the serious financial crime unit, legal sources said.

He was later taken to the office of magistrate, Philippe Courroye, who has spent three months investigating the South Pars contract that Total secured with the Iranian oil company NIOC.

Courroye could place de Margerie under judicial investigation which would be the first stage toward formal charges.

Four other Total executives, including financial director Robert Castaigne and a former senior executive, Patrick Rambaud, who was in charge of Total's negotiating section, were also detained on Wednesday but released late in the day without charge.

Total has confirmed that the executives have been questioned over the South Pars offshore field deal. But a spokesman said the group, France's biggest company in terms of turnover, supports Margerie and "confirms that the agreements signed respected the law."

If Margerie is not charged he could still be warned that he is needed as a witness or given an unconditional release.

According to sources close to the inquiry, the money was paid to Iranian officials between 1996 and 2003, when Margerie was Total's Middle East director. The Swiss accounts belonged to a suspected intermediary in the deal. Switzerland has frozen some 9.5 million euros from the accounts.

The oil group's chief executive is no stranger to controversy.

Last year he was charged with complicity with fraud and corruption by the same judge as part of an investigation into a French link to the "oil-for-food" scandal in Iraq.

Companies were said to have paid money to get oil deals from Iraq while it was under UN sanctions during the Saddam Hussein years.

Several other Total executives and former executives, including Rambaud, have also been charged as part of the "oil-for-food" scandal.

Known in the company as "Big Moustache," Margerie was promoted to managing director of Total in February in succession to Thierry Desmarest who had overseen huge expansion of the group and is president of the supervisory board.

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