An Italian court Wednesday acquitted oil companies Royal Dutch Shell and Eni and a group of current and former executives of corruption charges surrounding a widespread bribery scheme to acquire oil exploration rights in Nigeria.
The ruling by the Tribunal of Milan ends a legal saga that began in December 2017. Among the executives found not guilty include Eni’s current Chief Executive Officer Claudio Descalzi; Eni’s former CEO Paolo Scaroni; and Malcolm Brinded, Shell’s former chief of exploration and production.
In 2011, Shell and Eni paid $1.1 billion to secure rights to one of Africa’s most valuable oil blocks, known as OPL 245. A special report, “Shell Knew,” published by Global Witness and Finance Uncovered, showed the money for the deal went directly into the pockets of Dan Etete, former Nigerian Minister of Petroleum and a convicted money launderer who had awarded himself ownership of the block in 1998 through a company he secretly owned called “Malabu Oil and Gas.”
“This ruling is obviously very disappointing,” Barnaby Pace, a campaigner for Global Witness, said on Twitter. “We urge the Milan prosecutor to consider all options to appeal.”
Lanre Suraju of Nigerian anti-corruption group HEDA said the judgment “brings shame on Italy” in a Global Witness statement.
Shell, Eni, and the executives involved maintain they did nothing wrong. Shell argued there was “no basis to convict the company or its former employees” and noted that international law firm Debevoise & Plimpton concluded the same following an investigation.
In response to the acquittal, Royal Dutch Shell Chief Executive Ben van Beurden said in a statement he welcomed the decision. “We have always maintained that the 2011 settlement was legal, designed to resolve a decade-long legal dispute and unlock development of the OPL 245 block,” he said.
Regarding the company’s ethics and compliance efforts, van Beurden said Shell has increased its resources over the past decade, quadrupling its anti-bribery/anti-corruption (ABAC) team; introducing regional subject-matter experts; and forming a dedicated ABAC committee and mandatory ethical leadership program for all senior managers. “We asked a panel of independent experts to review this initiative, and their recommendations are now being incorporated as this framework is rolled out and embedded internally,” van Beurden said.
In October 2019, Shell said it was notified by the U.S. Department of Justice that the agency closed its inquiry regarding OPL 245, due to the ongoing legal proceedings in Europe. In April 2020, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission notified Shell it closed its investigation.
In December 2018, the Federal Republic of Nigeria (FRN) filed a civil claim against Royal Dutch Shell in the English High Court regarding OPL 245. In May 2020, the court declined jurisdiction and ruled the FRN is not entitled to bring these claims in England. In September 2020, an appeals court denied the FRN’s request to be allowed to appeal against the High Court’s ruling.
Shell’s legal battles are far from over, as it continues to defend charges in relation to OPL 245 in Nigeria. It also faces criminal charges brought by Dutch prosecutors. “There is no update available to share on the Dutch Public Prosecutor’s investigation into this matter,” Shell said Wednesday.
Other than Shell and Eni, the losers in this saga outweigh the winners. The OPL 245 block remains undeveloped.