A new Global Witness investigation released a few days ago, has uncovered that US oil giant ExxonMobil has been complicit in oil sector corruption in Liberia, with the purchase of an oil block the company knew was tainted by corruption.
Global Witness warns that corruption will continue undetected unless the US adopts a strong oil and gas anti-corruption rule to implement Section 1504 of the Dodd-Frank Act.
“Exxon and its lobbyists have spent the past 10 years fiercely fighting oil and gas transparency laws in the US,” said Stefanie Ostfeld, Deputy Head of Global Witness’ US office. “It’s no surprise that at the same time Exxon was lobbying to keep its payments to governments secret, it was getting entangled in Liberia’s corrupt oil sector.”
In an Exxon PowerPoint presentation obtained by Global Witness, Exxon wrote that it was interested in purchasing the oil block despite its “concern over issues regarding US anti-corruption laws.”
Exxon knew that the oil block, known as Block 13, had been previously awarded through bribery. It also suspected the block was partially owned by former Liberian politicians who may have illegally granted it to themselves while holding office. But despite its concerns, Exxon went ahead with the deal, using the Calgary-based company Canadian Overseas Petroleum as a go-between to purchase the block.
Exxon has not responded to Global Witness’s request for comment. Canadian Overseas did respond and stated it conducted due diligence and a forensic audit of the block’s owners, which showed that the deal posed no legal problems and that Block 13 was not owned by former politicians.
The company also said it followed legal advice in the US, UK, Liberia, and Canada, including anti-corruption and anti-money laundering advice.
However, US oil competitor Chevron had previously passed up a deal to buy the same oil block, expressing similar corruption concerns, according to an individual with knowledge of the negotiations.
“While the US was spending billions of dollars to help rebuild a war-ravaged Liberia, Exxon – under Rex Tillerson’s watch – was effectively undermining these efforts by becoming embroiled in oil sector corruption,” said Jonathan Gant, Senior Campaigner at Global Witness.
Exxon’s purchase in 2013 was accompanied by over US$200,000 in unusual large payments made by the corruption-tainted Liberian oil agency NOCAL to six Liberian officials who approved the deal.
Officials who received payments included Liberia’s then-Justice, Finance, and Mining Ministers, each of whom received $35,000 – more than doubling their annual salaries. Robert Sirleaf, then-Chairman of NOCAL and son of former President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, also received a $35,000 payment despite reportedly working pro-bono.
Three of the officials who received payments denied that the payments were irregular, stating instead that they were “bonuses” for what they called a very good deal. There is no evidence Exxon knew about these payments.
Section 1504, which requires US-listed companies to disclose payments they make to governments, could help detect and prevent similar deals abroad.
However, in February 2017, days after Tillerson was sworn in as Trump’s first Secretary of State, the Trump administration and Congress overturned the SEC rule implementing Section 1504. Tillerson had personally lobbied Congress against the law when it was introduced in 2010.
“While the Liberian oil block didn’t pay off, Exxon’s lobbying efforts in Washington, DC have,” warned Ostfeld. “Now the SEC must adopt a strong new rule to ensure 1504 is enforced and oil deals worth billions are brought out into the open.” https://www.globalwitness.org/en/press-releases/exxon-complicit-oil-sector-corruption-liberia/
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