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Unaoil founder negotiated bribes, US prosecutors say

The US Department of Justice has identified the founder of an energy consultancy that fixed billions of dollars worth of corrupt energy deals as having personally negotiated bribes, the latest development in a global corruption scandal that has been shrouded in secrecy.

The disclosure from the DoJ marks the first time US prosecutors have explicitly said that Ata Ahsani, the head of the British-Iranian family behind Unaoil, was involved in cutting deals as part of a sweeping corruption scheme at the company.

Ata Ahsani founded Unaoil in 1991, and the consultancy largely remained out of the spotlight for decades until it emerged as what prosecutors have described, following probes launched in 2016, as a major fixer for western companies paying bribes to win energy contracts around the world.

Unaoil paid bribes on behalf of 27 companies, including SBM Offshore and Rolls-Royce, according to US charges to which Ata Ahsani’s sons, Saman Ahsani and Cyrus Ahsani — Unaoil’s former chief operating officer and chief executive, respectively — have pleaded guilty.

The DoJ’s brief, which was filed in May and has not been previously reported, said Saman Ahsani set up a complex web of shell companies and bank accounts to facilitate “bribes that his father [Ata] and brother negotiated”. 

Saman Ahsani was sentenced to just over a year in US prison in January, after pleading guilty along with his brother Cyrus as part of a co-operation deal. Saman and Cyrus Ahsani had helped to corruptly facilitate millions of dollars worth of bribes to officials in countries from Libya to Kazakhstan to secure oil and gas contracts for major companies, US prosecutors said. 

Details of the case were shrouded in secrecy for years, with Saman and Cyrus Ahsanis’ pleas taken in closed hearings in 2019 and key documents kept under seal.

The DoJ’s statement about Ata Ahsani was included in a document it prepared in response to efforts by the Financial Times, the Guardian and Global Investigations Review, represented by the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, to unseal information about the sentencing of Saman Ahsani for his role in the same corruption scandal.

Those groups will argue at a US court hearing on Tuesday that more information in that case should be unsealed.

The Unaoil scandal provided a glimpse not only into an underbelly of the global energy market, but also into rivalries between top law enforcement agencies in the US and UK. Their respective investigations into Unaoil led to major clashes about who to hold accountable for years of criminal activity.

Ata Ahsani was never prosecuted. He entered into a “non-prosecution agreement” with the DoJ, according to the UK government-commissioned review of the Serious Fraud Office’s case published last year, and paid a $2.25mn financial penalty.

The DoJ declined to comment. A lawyer for Ata Ahsani said the Unaoil founder was unable to comment.

The UK agency wanted to prosecute the brothers, but was ultimately thwarted when the DoJ cut a deal with them instead. The review of the SFO’s handling of the case said the UK had also not prosecuted Ata Ahsani because of his deal with the DoJ.

The case ended in scandal for the SFO, after its dealings with an agent acting for the Ahsani family resulted in the Court of Appeal quashing three other UK-based Unaoil convictions.

The SFO last month also settled an employment dispute with the former case controller in charge of the Unaoil probe for a six-figure sum, after he was wrongfully dismissed in 2018.

Tom Martin was suspended following complaints made against him by both the DoJ and Saman Ahsani. But a UK employment judge ruled in 2021 that the SFO had failed to probe the true reason for the complaints, which he said were an attempt to get Martin out of the way so that Saman could cut a deal in the US.

In a letter issued to Martin last month, and seen by the FT, outgoing SFO director Lisa Osofsky admitted that the agency had been “wrong in both fact and law” in its findings against him.

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