Total SA Settles Bribery Case in U.S. but Faces Fresh Accusations of Corruption in France

Michael Teague  |
Last year, French petroleum company Total S.A. was eager to show itself in compliance with new sanctions against Iran when it stopped purchasing oil from the country a full six months ahead of a new European embargo.

Total, the 7th largest oil company in the world, said last year that it would replace Iranian crude with the Saudi variety despite the fact that the difference in quality would make for more complicated and expensive processing in France’s refineries.

All the goodwill the company was perhaps trying to show with this move, however, went unappreciated by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Justice Department. The two extracted nearly $400 million out of Total last week in separate settlements over charges that the company paid $60 million in bribes to Iranian officials in the mid 1990’s for access to some of the country’s vast, coveted oil reserves.

Total was found to have paid officials with connections to the National Iranian Oil Company to use their influence in order to persuade the state-owned NIOC to award it contracts in the country’s Sirri A and E fields. Total paid $60 million through intermediaries to secure the contracts, and passed those payments off as consulting fees.

The SEC ordered the company to disgorge $153 million to cover for the illicit profit it made off the deal as well as retain an independent compliance consultant at its own cost, while the deferred prosecution agreement with the Justice Department will cost it some $245 million dollars. The DOJ’s case was a criminal one, based on Total’s violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

While matters may be settled here in the U.S., however, Total is also facing a serious situation back at home, with top Paris prosecutor Francois Molins last week urging for the company and its CEO Christophe de Margerie be tried for corruption over the affair.

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De Margerie has maintained that the company’s deals with the NIOC were not in contravention of French law, but Total has already been tried once this year for corruption involving Middle Eastern oil. The company is currently awaiting a verdict on its role in Iraq during the 1990’s, when the United Nations and Western powers set up the ill-fated Oil for Food Program in order to offset the devastating effects of sanctions on ordinary Iraqis. The program ended with the equally ill-fated U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Total was by no means the only company who took advantage of the UN program. A UN inquiry led by former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker discovered that some 2,200 companies around the world had paid nearly $2 billion in bribe money to either get their hands on Iraqi crude, or to get the rights to sell it on the market (180 of these companies were French).

Total, in particular, is alleged to have paid bribes to Iraqi officials in exchange for preferential access to oil, as well as having purchased oil that it knew was being sold for the purpose of influencing French policy in a direction more favorable to the regime of Saddam Hussein. De Margerie was Total’s senior vice president for the Middle East throughout the 90’s and would have been heavily involved in whatever had taken place.

The quasi-legendary de Margerie became Total’s CEO six years ago and is valued by the company’s shareholders for his wide network of contacts throughout the world. Equally important, he has also worked to make the company leaner and more profitable by setting more realistic production goals, and aggressively pursuing contracts in hard-to-reach areas said to be rich in oil and gas such as the UK’s North Sea. Considering that this is not the first time he has been on trial, or threatened with one, it is unlikely that the recent U.S. ruling against the company or the subsequent threats from French prosecutors will convince the company to remove him from his post before his term ends in 2015.

For an oil company the size of Total, $400 million is simply the cost of doing business, and it does not seem like shares will be negatively affected. The company’s stock is up 23 percent over the past year, currently trading for $50.61 per share, it has a hefty 5.40 percent dividend yield, and trades at only 7 times forward earnings, suggesting there is quite a bit of room to grow. This will especially be the case if de Margerie is able to steer the ship successfully towards his output goal of 3 million barrels of oil equivalent per day by 2017, a likely possibility given the company’s far-flung and numerous exploration and drilling projects.

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