US to quiz Total chief over bribe probe

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US authorities plan to interview Christophe de Margerie, the chief executive of Total, as part of an inquiry into whether the French energy giant violated US laws against overseas bribery.

US sources on Tuesday confirmed the Department of Justice was investigating Total’s activities in Iran and Iraq. They cautioned that the inquiry was at a preliminary stage. US authorities are seeking an informal interview, not issuing mandatory subpoenas for grand jury testimony, they said.

A Total spokeswoman said on Tuesday: “What we can say is neither Total nor any of its executives has received any communication from the US authorities.”

Bribing foreign officials has been illegal under US law since the passage of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in 1977, and the DoJ and the Securities and Exchange Commission have recently stepped up enforcement against companies that do business in the US.

The SEC began an investigation into the Iranian operations of oil companies including Total in 2004, which is disclosed in Total’s annual reports.

The French authorities are already investigating Total for unexplained payments made in Iran to secure a 1997 deal to develop South Pars liquefied natural gas project. Mr de Margerie, who was head of Middle East exploration and products at the time, was questioned for 36 hours about that deal last month.

The Iraq part of the probe flows out of the United Nations oil-for-food programme, in which some energy firms paid improper surcharges for the right to sell Iraqi oil.

In February, the El Paso Corporation paid nearly $8m in penalties to settle a foreign bribery case stemming from the oil-for-food investigation.

Mr de Margerie was held for two days last year for questioning about Total’s Iraq dealings. He and the company have denied wrongdoing.

Bryan Sierra, a DoJ spokesman, declined to comment. An SEC spokesman was unavailable.

Last year 15 new investigations were reported, up from eight in 2005, and the US authorities have become more active about opening their own bribery probes, even when the company involved is based elsewhere and is being probed by its own authorities.

Siemens, the German manufacturing giant, is being investigated by both German and US authorities and last autumn, the DoJ and SEC forced Statoil, the Norwegian energy company, to pay $21m in penalties and admit that it bribed Iranian officials, even though it had already paid $3m in fines in 2004 to settle a Norwegian inquiry into the same issue.

It could not be determined on Tuesday whether the interview with Mr de Margerie would take place in France or in the US.

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