The whistleblower who sparked the Unaoil investigation by providing key information said on Thursday he was relieved by the guilty pleas.
“I thought the investigation would die slowly, especially after the propaganda campaign the Ahsani’s launched against you in The Australian. They tried to build the case that they were the victim but now they have pleaded guilty the truth has finally come out. It’s a huge relief,” the whistleblower said.
We have never named the whistleblower because identifying them might expose them to retribution from corrupt officials in some of the most dangerous countries in the world.
The Ahsani’s lawyer, Sydney defamation solicitor Rebekah Giles, attacked the reporting that exposed Unaoil’s corruption as unfounded and unjust and threatened significant legal action. Unaoil was pushing claims the leaked data did not expose corruption but rather had been stolen by someone to blackmail the company. She did not respond to a request for comment and a spokesman for The Australian‘s parent company, News Corp, also did not respond.
In a statement released overnight, the US Department of Justice said Unaoil’s bribery scheme ran between 1999 and 2016. It involved massive corrupt payments to government officials in Algeria, Angola, Azerbaijan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran, Iraq, Kazakhstan, Libya and Syria. The US DOJ said the Ahsani brothers laundered the proceeds of their bribery scheme in an effort to conceal their activities. It also said Unaoil destroyed evidence in an effort to obstruct investigations in the US and elsewhere.
Unaoil was used as a middle-man by some of the world’s best-known companies such as Rolls Royce, Hyundai, Samsung and Halliburton to win lucrative oil and gas contracts. Prominent Australian company Leighton, now called CIMIC, paid millions of dollars in commission payments to Unaoil after allegedly corrupting the tender process for oil pipeline contracts in Iraq. An Australian Federal Police investigation into Leighton’s Unaoil dealings remains ongoing.
Australian investigators continue to build a case against former Leighton executives and the company. The US guilty pleas by the Ahsanis may now assist the Australian investigation into Leighton and several former executives. One of the architects of Leighton’s success in Iraq, former Unaoil manager, Basil Al Jarah pleaded guilty earlier this year to bribery charges in separate action brought by the United Kingdom’s Serious Fraud Office.
The US DOJ also announced that former Unaoil business development director, Steven Hunter, had pleaded guilty to one count to violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
The revelations of bribery came after an analysis by The Age and Herald in 2016 of hundreds of thousands of leaked Unaoil emails — many written in code — which showed how Unaoil had acted as a global bagman for dozens of major companies. The stories prompted investigations by the UK Serious Fraud Office, the FBI, Swiss, French and Italian authorities, but was also subject to attacks via the owners of Unaoil, the wealthy Ahsani family of Monaco.
The emails described million-dollar bribes as “holidays”, gave corrupt politicians and bagmen code names like “the doctor” and “Mr Lighthouse” and complained about greedy officials who wanted bigger bribes. The emails also exposed how Leighton’s billion-dollar-plus Iraq contracts were won via graft.
The expose has already triggered industrial behemoths Rolls Royce and TechnipFMC to settle Unaoil related investigations run by US or UK agencies by paying hundreds of millions of dollars. There are ongoing investigations around the world into multinationals and US defence giant Honeywell has disclosed that its relationship with Unaoil has led to it facing a corruption probe by American investigators.
The outcome in the US is controversial. UK investigators from the Serious Fraud Office, led by lawyer Tom Martin, sought to prosecute the Ahsanis in London to ensure they received large jail sentences and the confiscation of assets thought to be worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
But US anti-corruption investigators cut a secret deal with the Ahsani family that will likely lead to them receiving lesser penalties in return for becoming cooperating witness in actions against the companies they once paid bribes for.
Mr Martin has left the SFO and is suing the agency in a case in which he will allege the UK investigation into the Ahsanis was unjustly undermined.
Richard Baker is a multi-award winning investigative reporter for The Age.
Nick McKenzie is an investigative reporter for The Age. He’s won seven Walkley awards and covers politics, business, foreign affairs and defence, human rights issues, the criminal justice system and social affairs.
Michael Bachelard is The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald’s investigations editor. He has worked in Canberra, Melbourne and Jakarta as Indonesia correspondent. He has written two books and won multiple awards for journalism, including the Gold Walkley in 2017.