Beny Steinmetz
Guinea has levelled corruption allegations against BSGR, the conglomerate managed on behalf of the family of Beny Steinmetz, above © FT

At Jacksonville airport in Florida on Sunday April 14, Frederic Cilins held the last of a series of meetings with the widow of an African dictator to discuss what she was going to do with some sensitive documents.

According to an indictment filed by US authorities last week, the French citizen was seeking to have contracts destroyed that related to an alleged bribery scheme designed to secure mining rights in Guinea.

Mr Cilins did not realise that the woman he was talking to was wearing a wire and that FBI agents were watching. As he left the meeting, the agents arrested him carrying envelopes filled with $20,000 in cash, the indictment says. That was a pittance compared with the $5m he was taped offering the dictator’s widow during what US authorities say was a two-month campaign to tamper with a witness and destroy records.

Each of those offences carries a maximum jail term of 20 years. Mr Cilins, 50, was also charged with obstructing a criminal investigation, namely a previously unannounced grand jury probe under the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act into the alleged bribery scheme in Guinea, which he helped to orchestrate, according to the indictment.

The Financial Times has seen copies of some of the documents that Mr Cilins was allegedly so keen to destroy and which are referred to in the indictment. The indictment does not name the mining company on whose behalf the bribes were allegedly offered. But the description of a company that in 2008 acquired rights to half of Guinea’s Simandou iron-ore deposit after it had been stripped from another miner points in one direction: the resources arm of Beny Steinmetz Group, the conglomerate managed on behalf of the family of Israeli diamond tycoon, Beny Steinmetz. Mr Cilins has been described by the Guinean government as an agent of BSGR. The company said Mr Cilins was not one of its employees.

Neither does the indictment identify the woman who has sought immunity from prosecution in exchange for co-operating with the FBI investigation and helping to deliver Mr Cilins. It refers only to a “former wife of a now deceased high-ranking official in the government of Guinea” who was approached by Mr Cilins at the inception of the alleged bribery scheme.

The Department of Justice declined to confirm her identity or that of the company. However, documents seen by the FT show that Mamadie Touré, the wife of Lansana Conté until his 25-year reign ended with his death in 2008, signed her name to the deal.

According to one copy of a contract seen by the FT, dated February 27 2008 and which appears to be signed by Asher Avidan, BSG Resources’ head in Guinea, the company agreed to pay $4m to secure rights to Simandou. That would be split into $2m to be distributed among “people of goodwill who contribute to facilitating the assignment” of the rights and $2m for a company called Matinda.

Ms Touré’s name is listed on the contract and her signature appears on it. She is named in US corporate records as the registered agent of a company also called Matinda, based at a Jacksonville address.

Rio Tinto had held the rights to the whole of Simandou, a mountain range groaning with iron ore in Guinea’s remote interior, for a decade. But in August that year, the Conté government withdrew the mining group’s concession, saying it had taken too long to develop a mine. In December, just days before the dictator’s death, the government signed over half the rights to Simandou to BSGR.

Vale of Brazil, the world’s biggest iron ore miner, bought a 51 per cent in BSGR’s Guinea assets in April 2010. Late last year, as a Guinean government committee levelled corruption allegations against BSGR, Vale put the Simandou project on hold. Earlier this month, it suspended payments on the $2.5bn it agreed to pay for its stake.

Following Mr Cilins’ arrest, Vale said “it was unaware of the actions of the individual who has been charged.”

In February, Mohamed Lamine Fofana, Guinea’s mining minister, told the FT that the government was seeking a fresh deal on the half of Simandou that BSGR and Vale control, “updated to reflect the current law and the current realities”. It is unclear what the role of BSGR would be under any new deal.

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