PARIS (AFP) -A judge investigating alleged bribes by Total has traced suspect funds to a Swiss account held by the secretary to the son of former Iranian president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, sources said on Friday.
The French judge has banned Total chief executive Christophe de Margerie from meeting the former Iranian president and his son Mehdi Hashemi Rafsanjani, a judicial source said.
Margerie is under investigation over alleged bribes for an Iranian gas contract in 1997, and sources close to the matter indicated that the secretary to Rafsanjani’s son was suspected of being the alleged middleman.
This connection had emerged from the questioning on Wednesday of another Total executive at the time, they said.
The executive had identified the secretary as the Iranian resident in Switzerland who allegedly held a Swiss account in which suspect funds had been found.
Investigators are interested in two accounts in Switzerland into which payments of nearly 100 million Swiss francs (60 million euros, 80 million dollars) were paid.
The contract for the off-shore project involved in the allegations, known as South Pars, was signed with the National Iranian oil company NIOC in 1997. Total denies any wrongdoing.
Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani was president of Iran from 1989 to 1997.
His son came to the attention of the investigating magistrate, Philippe Courroye, through a Norwegian probe into the Norwegian national oil company Statoil which was consequently fined 20 million kroner (2.4 million euros) in 2004 for trying to buy influence in Iran.
Courroye placed Margerie under formal investigation late on Thursday on suspicion he had paid bribes to win the Iranian gas contract.
According to sources, money was allegedly paid to Iranian officials between 1996 and 2003 when Margerie, promoted to head Total last month, was the group’s Middle East director.
The judicial control order banned the Total chief from meeting former president Rafsanjani and his son, and several other leading Iranian figures, a legal source said.
However, Margerie is free to fulfil his function as the chief executive of Total, one of the biggest French companies and a giant in the oil industry.
Also detained for questioning on Wednesday, but then released without further action, were: finance director Robert Castaigne, the head of gas operations Philippe Boisseau, the former Total executive responsible for the South Pars project Michel Naylies, and a former executive Patrick Rambaud.
Margerie, already under investigation over the Iraq “oil-for-food” bribes scandal, was told formally late on Thursday that he was under investigation on suspicions of “corruption of foreign public agents and misuse of corporate assets,” a judicial source said.
Being placed under judicial investigation by an investigating judge is one step short of being charged with a crime in the French legal system, but a case can be dropped later for lack of evidence.
Total expressed “its full support for its employees and confirms that the agreements for the development of the South Pars project were entered into in compliance with applicable law.”
Last year, Courroye put Margerie under investigation for corruption allegedly linked to the “oil-for-food” scandal in Iraq.
Companies were alleged to have paid money to obtain oil deals from Iraq while it was under UN sanctions during the Saddam Hussein years.
Several other Total executives and former executives have also been put under formal investigation as part of the “oil-for-food” scandal.