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Rio Tinto has appointed Philip Richards as new group head of legal to replace Debra Valentine, who was sacked in November in connection with a questionable payment made to a consultant on an African project, now the subject of a regulatory probe.

The FTSE 100 mining company made no reference to the Simandou iron ore mine in Guinea in its statement on Friday announcing the appointment of Mr Richards, who it said would have responsibility for all Group legal services and join executive committee.

Ms Valentine, together with Alan Davies, head of energy and minerals who was previously in charge of Simandou project, were sacked in November.

Mr Richards has been working at Rio on secondment since December from Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, where he was a senior partner specialising in corporate law.

In November, Rio notified authorities in the US, UK and Australia about the $10.5m payment in 2011 to François Polge de Combret, a French consultant who assisted the company in reaching a settlement with Guinea over Simandou, one of the world’s biggest untapped deposits of iron ore.

The UK Serious Fraud Office is evaluating whether to launch an investigation into the payment to Mr Polge de Combret, a former Lazard banker whose role is said to have helped smooth tensions with Guinea over the company’s Simandou rights, according to one person close to the situation.

Rio said this week it would delay the release of bonuses potentially worth millions to former chief executive Sam Walsh until law enforcement authorities have completed their inquiries into the afffair.

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