Was Halliburton, the oil conglomerate once headed by Dick Cheney, involved in a massive $180 million bribery scheme in Nigeria on Cheney’s watch? Hopes that the veil may finally be lifted on yet another odoriferous Halliburton scandal were raised last Friday, when it was announced that the Securities and Exchange Commission has finally opened a formal investigation into the alleged bribery — which French authorities have been probing for a year. In Paris, official documents revealing that Cheney might be among those indicted on corruption charges as a result of the French investigation made front-page news there last Christmas — but not here.
The newly launched SEC probe was undoubtedly sparked by the latest revelations in the French investigation. A Halliburton London lawyer, Jeffrey Tesler — identified by the French investigating magistrate conducting the international bribery probe as the bagman who controlled the secret $180 million “slush fund” set up (according to French press reports) by a Halliburton subsidiary, Kellogg Brown & Root (KBR) — admitted in mid-May, under oath, making two payments from the slush fund totaling nearly $1 million to two top KBR executives.
At the heart of the complicated scandal is a $6 billion gas-liquefaction factory — one of the largest in the world — built in Nigeria on behalf of oil mammoth Shell by Halliburton in partnership with a large French petro-engineering company, Technip. Nigeria has been rated by the anticorruption watchdog Transparency International as the second-most corrupt country in the world, surpassed only by Bangladesh. The French investigation is the first under a new statute, passed by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) and ratified by France in 2000, making bribe giving in the course of business transactions a crime. The U.S. is one of the 30-country member signatories to the OECD conventions, and U.S. law has banned such payments for 25 years.
Judge Renaud Van Ruymbeke, France’s best-known investigating magistrate who is heading the French probe of Halliburton, is notoriously independent with a reputation as “untouchable.” Together with the famous Spanish investigating judge Baltasar Garzon and the former chief Geneva public prosecutor Bernard Bertossa, he was one of the initiators of a 1996 call for greater international cooperation on corruption cases signed by investigating magistrates from all over Europe and known in judicial circles as the “Geneva Appeal.”
Van Ruymbeke — no stranger to the unsavory world of oil-and-gas politics — unearthed the existence of the $180 million fund now being investigated by the SEC. He made his name investigating a series of corruption scandals in which politicians of both right and left were convicted — including a former cabinet member from Jacques Chirac’s conservative coalition. Van Ruymbeke stumbled across the Halliburton scandal while investigating the oil giant Elf for corrupting and bribing public officials (a scandal that earned Elf’s CEO, Loic LeFloch Prigent, a five-year prison sentence). Elf has had a raft of hand-in-glove dealings with Technip, the French firm now under investigation with Halliburton.
The roaming $180 million now being investigated by the SEC was first paid to the mysterious, 55-year-old Tesler — who worked for Halliburton at the same time he was financial adviser to the late Nigerian dictator General Sami Abacha and controlled his personal fortune — through a front company called TriStar that Tesler set up and controlled in the British tax haven of Gibraltar. TriStar in turn got the money from a consortium set up for the Nigeria refinery deal by Halliburton and Technip, and registered in the island fiscal paradise of Madeira.
According to Agence France-Presse, Georges Krammer — a top official of Technip who is cooperating with Judge Van Rymbeke’s investigation — has testified that the Madeira-based consortium was a slush fund controlled by Halliburton (through its subsidiary KBR) and Technip, and that Halliburton insisted that Teslar be the intermediary in the Nigeria deal over the objections of Technip. According to Newsweek, another top Technip official interviewed by the magazine in February (Christopher Welton, chief of Technip’s investor-and-analyst relations) confirmed that Halliburton’s KBR subsidiary “was the chief principal and decision maker in the venture.”
Judge Van Ruymbeke, according to French press reports, believed that some or all of the $180 million which Halliburton/KBR claims were “retro-commissions” were, in fact, bribes given to Nigerian officials and others to grease the wheels for the refinery deal (which required Nigerian government approval) and its construction. One of the many witnesses deposed by Judge Van Ruymbeke is the former Nigerian oil minister Dan Entete — who is suspected of having used some of the alleged bribe money to buy himself fancy apartments in Paris and a chateau in Normandy. Entete, according to the Journal du Dimanche (a large Sunday paper), confirmed the judge’s suspicions that Tesler laundered the money through offshore and secret bank accounts, and that part of the money wound up in dictator Abacha’s coffers.
The French judge then launched a series of international search warrants, some of which covered Tesler-controlled bank accounts (some in the names of Tesler family members) in Monaco; Geneva, Switzerland; Madeira; and elsewhere. Documents revealed, among other things, bizarre payments to two top Halliburton/KBR officials by Tesler, according to the investigative weekly Le Canard Enchaine. With those documents in hand, Judge Van Ruymbeke then got Tesler to come to Paris for two days of testimony by telling him: Either you come voluntarily, or we’ll issue an international warrant and make you come. In his sworn testimony, the French paper said, Tesler admitted making two payments from the $180 million fund to Halliburton execs: a $385,000 payment to Albert J. “Jack” Stanley, president of KBR and a close associate of Dick Cheney — a payment which Stanley had sent to a numbered bank account in Zurich, baptized “Amal”; and another payment of $350,000 to top KBR exec William Chaudan — who had the money routed to an anonymous bank account on the island fiscal paradise of Jersey. (Neither Stanley, Chaudan nor KBR’s public relations director responded to calls seeking their comments for this story.)
If these were legitimate business payments, why route them to secret foreign bank accounts? Were they, perhaps, just old-fashioned, Enron-style boodling? Or destined to be laundered as bribes? Or were they ultimately intended for GOP coffers (one of the hypotheses Judge Van Ruymbeke is not excluding)? And where did the rest of the $180 million go?
A Department of Justice inquiry into the slush fund quietly begun earlier this year under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act has gone nowhere — partly because it has limited itself only to asking Halliburton for documents, partly because the national press has shown almost no real interest in the story (if it did, the pressure on Justice to move more aggressively would be enormous). And obvious conflict-of-interest questions must be raised about any investigation of a company formerly run by Cheney that is controlled by Cheney’s political pal John Ashcroft.
“Getting to the Brown and Root of the matter” is an old Texas expression for “follow the money.” That’s why the SEC’s tardy investigation is good news — as an independent agency it has some insulation from political pressure. But not, of course, as much as the incorruptible Judge Van Ruymbeke — who last December formally notified the French Ministry of Justice that Dick Cheney could wind up among those eventually indicted in the scandal.