Big oil: Nadhmi Auchi and Total (and the Liberal Democrats)

Francis Wade in the Guardian:

The outspoken chief executive of French oil giant Total takes no prisoners in his defence of the company’s controversial investment record. Speaking to the Financial Times earlier this month, he warned oil executives who may buckle when faced with the misery caused in Nigeria by Big Oil to “change their business” and get out of the game.

“Our business is a difficult one, but it is a responsibility of a big company to be able to face those challenges,” he said. Asked if there was any country in the world where the “cost to the environment or to the people” would be too great to operate in, he remained equally defiant.

This stoicism in the face of international condemnation has kept Christophe de Mergerie at the helm of one of the world’s “supermajors” – a term used to describe the six biggest oil companies that dominate global extraction and production. He shares that podium with Shell, BP, Chevron, Exxon and ConocoPhillips, all of which employ battalions of PR staff to top up the whitewash and defend daily attacks from environmental and human rights groups.

But accusations of hypocrisy have plagued Total, which employs early 100,000 people worldwide and last year earned more than $11bn in profit. The company announced in 2008 that it would not venture into Iran because the danger it posed to Total’s image was considered too high. “Today we would be taking too much political risk to invest in Iran because people will say: ‘Total will do anything for money’,” de Margerie told the FT shortly after the decision was made public.

But “do anything for money” is what it appears to be doing. [READ THE REST]

From TheJC, added hyperlinks:

A controversial Iraqi-British billionaire who funds one of the UK’s most strongly anti-Zionist websites organised a banquet in honour of Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, and a fundraiser for Susan Kramer, the party’s candidate in the high-profile seat of Richmond Park.

Nadhmi Auchi, 73, was convicted of fraud in the giant French Elf-Aquitaine oil company trial in 2003 and given a suspended sentence, although he is seeking to appeal the verdict.

The Lib Dems told the JC that the connection between the party and the billionaire was limited to the two events and that Mr Auchi was not a donor to the party.

Mr Clegg spoke at a dinner hosted by Mr Auchi’s Anglo-Arab Organisation, set up to promote understanding between Britain and the Arab world last November. The Lib Dems confirmed that the AAO also organised a £60-a-head dinner for Ms Kramer, which raised around £5,000.

Mr Auchi’s Middle East Online site promotes material by well-known anti-Zionists such as musician-activist Gilad Atzmon and Jeff Gates, who runs the anti-Israel “Criminal State” blog. Mr Auchi also helped fund the first of George Galloway’s “Viva Palestina” convoys taking aid to Gaza.

The former Lib Dem leader Lord Steel is a longstanding director of Mr Auchi’s Luxembourg-registered company General Mediterranean Holdings. Other politicians who have worked with Mr Auchi include Lord Lamont and former minister Keith Vaz. At the weekend, the Mail on Sunday revealed that Lord Steel approached Lib Dem health spokesman Norman Lamb to reassure him about Mr Auchi after Mr Lamb asked a series of questions about the billionaire in Parliament.

Mr Auchi is fiercely protective of his reputation and has used libel lawyers Carter-Ruck to force several newspapers and blogs to remove references to his activities. Despite Lord Steel’s approaches, Mr Lamb raised this issue in a Commons debate on libel in December 2008: “It is alleged that Mr Auchi and his lawyers, Carter Ruck, have been making strenuous efforts to close down public debate.”

More links: Modernity, Harry’s Place.

From the Daily Mail:

Nick Clegg attended a banquet held in his honour by a billionaire Iraqi businessman who was convicted and given a suspended jail sentence for fraud and bribery in France.

A Mail on Sunday investigation has revealed that the businessman, Nadhmi Auchi, 73, has close links with other key Liberal Democrat figures.

Mr Auchi, who says he is still seeking to challenge the 2003 conviction, has also been embroiled in the case of the convicted Chicago fraudster Antoin ‘Tony’ Rezko, once a friend and ally of President Obama.

A US court revoked Mr Rezko’s bail before he was convicted in 2008 when prosecutors discovered that Mr Auchi had wired him $3.5million from a bank account in Lebanon. They feared that Mr Rezko intended to flee the country.

Lord Steel, the former Liberal Democrat leader, is paid undisclosed sums as a director of Mr Auchi’s main company, the Luxembourg-registered General Mediterranean Holdings, the centre of a global empire that includes hotel, leisure, pharmaceutical and telecommunications firms.

Closer to home, on February 12 Mr Auchi’s Anglo Arab Organisation, a non-profit-making limited company that he controls, organised a lavish fundraising dinner for Susan Kramer, the Lib Dem frontbench spokeswoman on families and MP for the South-West London constituency of Richmond Park, where Mr Auchi lives. It was held in Pembroke Lodge, a magnificent Georgian mansion overlooking the Thames. Ms Kramer’s office refused to comment. About 100 people paid £60 each to attend, a Lib Dem spokesman said.

The banquet for Mr Clegg was also organised under the Anglo Arab Organisation’s auspices, and took place on November 11 last year amid the five-star splendour of the Millennium Hotel in London’s Mayfair.
Lord Steel, Mr Clegg’s wife Miriam Gonzalez Durantez and Menzies Campbell, Mr Clegg’s immediate predecessor as party leader, were also in attendance.

Mr Auchi has previously been close to high-ranking members of the two other main parties, including former Tory Chancellor Lord Lamont, Labour MP Keith Vaz and Alan Duncan, the Conservative Shadow Prisons Minister.

Lord Lamont and Mr Duncan are listed on the Anglo Arab Organisation website as patrons – as is the imprisoned Mr Rezko.

Mr Auchi invested $170million in a Chicago property scheme organised by Mr Rezko.

Following Mr Auchi’s own criminal conviction, he was barred entry to the US, and American court documents say that Mr Rezko lobbied the State Department to have this ban lifted. Mr Auchi has stated that he knew nothing of Mr Rezko’s lobbying efforts. Mr Rezko has yet to be sentenced, and is expected to be a prosecution witness at the corruption trial of Rod Blagojevich, the disgraced former Illinois governor. Mr Auchi was guest of honour at a reception hosted by Mr Blagojevich in 2004. President Obama – who once became involved in a property deal with Mr Rezko – has since described his association with the fraudster as a ‘bone-headed mistake’.

At the Clegg banquet, Mr Auchi made a speech suggesting he now preferred the Liberal Democrats. He said: ‘In the past, the Arab community has not actively participated in British political life… I believe this is changing and we are now closer to finding a party that is not only sympathetic to our views but whose policies actively seek to address our concerns.’ Mr Clegg replied in kind, saying that the Arab community’s values also ‘sit deep in the soul of the Liberal Democrats’.

Mr Auchi’s personal fortune is estimated at £2.15billion, making him Britain’s 32nd richest person. A UK citizen, he has lived in Britain since 1980. Since 2003, Mr Auchi has invested heavily in the new, post- Saddam Iraq.

Mr Auchi’s criminal conviction stems from the French investigation into massive corruption at the oil giant Elf Aquitaine, which is now part of Total. Having spent two years fighting a warrant for his extradition, he went on trial in Paris in 2003. He was found to have accepted illegal commissions stemming from Elf’s purchase of a Spanish oil refinery, and also to have paid secret backhanders to some of the firm’s directors. In addition to a 15-month suspended jail sentence, he was fined €2million.

In his defence, he told the court that he believed the payments were legal because Elf was a state-owned company. Afterwards, Lord Steel said that Mr Auchi’s conviction ‘will give us all pause for thought. I should imagine the board will be looking at this but not as a matter of any great urgency as it’s old stuff’. He decided to remain on Mr Auchi’s board.

In the seven years since Mr Auchi’s conviction, he has repeatedly protested his innocence, and stated that he intends to appeal. But last night his lawyer, Alasdair Pepper, confirmed no such appeal has yet been heard, and for the time being at least, Mr Auchi’s conviction stands. He said: ‘Mr Auchi continues to challenge the conviction and this is in the hands of his French lawyers. He continues to seek damages from what was Elf. At present, he does not wish to disclose more about this for reasons of commercial confidentiality.’

The association with Mr Auchi will dismay other senior Liberal Democrats. During 2001-03, Norman Lamb, the party’s spokesman on health, asked a series of questions in the House of Commons about Mr Auchi’s attempts to prevent his extradition to France. Yesterday, Mr Lamb revealed that later, Lord Steel contacted him in an attempt to reassure him Mr Auchi was a person of good character. He said: ‘I had a conversation in which David Steel told me that in his judgment, Nadhmi Auchi was not a problem. He was giving me his own perspective.’ However, Mr Lamb went on, Lord Steel’s remarks did not dissuade him from speaking out on a further matter that concerned him, and which he raised in the Commons in December 2008 – what he described then as attempts by Mr Auchi and his solicitors to stifle free speech by threatening libel actions.

Citing his French conviction, and his involvement with Mr Rezko, Mr Lamb told the House: ‘It is legitimate to investigate such a matter, given that Mr Auchi is a prominent British citizen with political connections in this country and overseas. [But] it is alleged that Mr Auchi and his lawyers, Carter-Ruck, have been making strenuous efforts to close down public debate.’ Mr Lamb said they had been writing to newspapers and websites demanding the removal of articles that had been published years earlier. ‘Many are concerned about the fact that creating a link on a blog to a newspaper article, which may have been available for several years to anyone searching the internet, can result in action being threatened or taken. Is that legitimate?’

In his speech at the banquet in his honour, Mr Clegg betrayed no sign he shared such concerns. He said: ‘I feel that there is a conjunction of aspirations, of hopes and of values between members of the British Arab community and many of the things that the Liberal Democrats stand for today.’ The Lib Dems had criticised the Iraq War and Israel’s actions in Gaza because it was right to do so, he added, not because it was popular. ‘We will not stand aside when unimaginable human suffering is taking place.’

A Lib Dem spokesman insisted last night there was no ‘close association’ between Mr Clegg and Mr Auchi. ‘I don’t think it was an error of judgment.’

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