PARIS (AFP) -French oil group Total was dragged into a corruption probe over a gas contract in Iran on Wednesday but denied any wrongdoing.
A Total spokesman said that chief executive Christophe de Margerie and two other executives had been called in for judicial questioning over a gas contract signed in Iran in 1997.
But the spokesman told AFP that the group had acted legally.
The multinational group was reacting to a newspaper report that a unit at the finance ministry fighting money laundering had passed evidence of illegal payments to investigating magistrates.
A source close to the matter said it was suspected that funds found in Switzerland might have been paid illegally by Total to win the contract.
The Total spokesman acknowledged that the executives would be questioned during the day “in connection with a judicial enquiry” opened in December 2006 concerning “a South Pars industrial project in Iran, signed by Total in 1997 with the Iranian national oil company NIOC.”
Total was “completely behind its executives and confirms that the agreements signed respected the law,” the spokesman added, saying the company was confident that investigating magistrates would “find there was no breach of the law.”
The source close to the matter said that Margerie, promoted to head Total only five weeks ago but responsible for Middle East operations at the time, faced questioning over suspicions that from 1996 to 2003 Total might have made illegal payments, identified in Switzerland, to win the contract.
Margerie would also be questioned over suspected corruption in Cameroon, the source said.
Earlier, the regional newspaper Est Republicain had reported that Margerie would be questioned about the contract in Iran and in connection with an enquiry begun on January 8 into suspected “corruption of foreign agents” relating to the production and marketing of oil from Cameroon.
The two enquiries resulted from information provided in November 2006 by a unit at the economy and finance ministry charged with fighting money laundering, called Tracfin.
The Total spokesman named the other executives being questioned as finance director Robert Castaigne and the head of gas activities Philippe Boisseau.
The probe had begun in December under investigating magistrates Philippe Courroye and Xaviere Simeoni, and the police were acting on orders from Courroye, the source said.
Since 2002, Total and some of its executives have been targeted by Courroye in an investigation into alleged misuse of company assets. This enquiry is looking into whether Total misused funds to obtain markets abroad, and particularly in Iraq.
The probe, which has been extended to include suspected “corruption,” led Courroye to uncover evidence in 2005 that French interests might have received commissions for breaching a UN embargo against Iraqi oil from 1996 to 2003, in what has become a French “oil for food” case.
This enquiry has led to Margerie being placed under official judicial investigation, the first step to being formally charged.
Known in the company as “Big Moustache” by virtue of his long, thick moustache, Margerie is a grandson of the founder of Taittinger champagne. He was promoted to managing director of Total on February 14 in succession to Thierry Desmarest who had overseen huge expansion of the group and is president of the supervisory board.
The appointment marked a change of culture at the top of the company, habitually headed by an engineer.
Margerie studied at the elite ESCP business school in Paris, joining the finance department of Total in 1974, rising to the managing committee in 1992 and becoming director for the Middle East region in 1995.
An executive at Total commented: “One of his great strengths is that he established and maintained very strong links with the leaders of these countries.”
After Total acquired Belgian group Petrofina in 1999 he became director for exploration and production. In 2000 he was appointed to the executive committee of TotalFinaElf of which he became director general of exploration and production on January 1, 2002.
Total also acquired ElfAquitaine, the other main French oil group.