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Tory donor’s oil firm admits employees paid bribes to get contracts

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<span>Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Bloomberg/Getty Images

A multinational oil firm, which was led by a major Conservative donor, has admitted that its employees paid bribes to land contracts, as it struck a deal to end a corruption investigation into the company.

The admission was announced by the firm, Petrofac, on Friday to settle a four-year corruption and money laundering investigation by the Serious Fraud Office.

Petrofac said it was intending to plead guilty in court to seven counts of failing to prevent its employees from offering or paying bribes to secure Middle Eastern contracts between 2012 and 2015.

During those years, the firm was led by Ayman Asfari, who with his wife has donated almost £800,000 to the Conservative party in a personal capacity.

Questions have been raised over the government’s support for Petrofac. The Guardian has previously disclosed that David Cameron, after he had left Downing Street, lobbied the Bahraini royal family to persuade them to award a $5bn oil contract to Petrofac in 2017.

Cameron had promoted the firm during a two-day visit to Bahrain, six months after leaving Downing Street. He was flown back to Britain on a plane belonging to Asfari, Petrofac’s co-founder and then chief executive.

Whitehall documents also disclosed that Theresa May, while prime minister, and Liam Fox, while international trade secretary, also lobbied the Bahraini royal family to award the same contract to the firm. The contract was not awarded to Petrofac.

Related: Revealed: Cameron and May lobbied Bahrain royals for Tory donor's oil firm

Petrofac said its admission on Friday brought to an end “a deeply regrettable period” in its history, adding that it was now a “profoundly different business”. Its share price rose markedly after the announcement, boosting the value of the large shareholding held by Asfari in the firm.

Petrofac said that all the employees involved in the corruption behaviour had left the firm. The firm and the SFO announced that they had reached a plea agreement over the investigation into Petrofac’s use of middlemen to secure contracts.

As part of this agreement, Petrofac said it would plead guilty to seven counts of failing to prevent its employees from offering or making payments to agents in connection with contracts awarded between 2012 and 2015 in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

It added that these offers or payments, which were contrary to the 2010 Bribery Act, were made between 2011 and 2017.

Petrofac said it would enter the guilty pleas at Southwark crown court, London on Monday.

In June, the Guardian disclosed that the SFO had been investigating Petrofac for allegedly paying million-pound bribes to secure contracts in nine countries. The agency examined alleged payments made by Petrofac since the early 2000s to land contracts in the Middle East, Africa and Asia, including Kuwait and Algeria.

Until he stepped down at the end of 2020, Asfari was Petrofac’s chief executive for nearly two decades. Currently he is a non-executive director.

He co-founded the firm, which designs and builds facilities for the oil and gas industry, in 1991. It has more than 9,000 employees in 31 countries.

Asfari had been arrested and interviewed along with others during the SFO’s investigation. In May 2017, he was questioned under caution and released without charge.

He and his wife, Sawsan, gave their donations to the Conservatives between 2009 and 2017. In 2014, he had been appointed by Cameron to be one of 43 prime minister’s business appointments, tasked with helping the British government to promote trade and investment.

In previous court hearings, David Lufkin, 54, Petrofac International’s former global head of sales, had pleaded guilty to 14 counts of bribery between 2012 and 2018. Lufkin admitted working with Petrofac employees to offer or pay bribes totalling $80m (£57m) to win contracts worth a total of $7.5bn in Saudi Arabia, Iraq and the United Arab Emirates.

On Friday, René Medori, the firm’s chairman, said: “This was a deeply regrettable period of Petrofac’s history. We are committed to ensuring it will never happen again. Petrofac has been living under the shadow of the past, but today it is a profoundly different business in which stakeholders can be assured of our commitment to the highest standards of business ethics, wherever we operate.”

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