Britain’s commitment to tackling high-end money laundering through the City of London is under serious scrutiny after it emerged that regulators appear to have waved through an $800m bank transfer to a convicted criminal as the proceeds from one of the most corrupt deals in the history of the oil industry.
A joint investigation by the Observer and journalists from Finance Uncovered, a non-profit organisation based in London, has discovered that prosecutors in Milan believe two payments of $400m each were wired through JP Morgan in London as the spoils of a huge deal to develop a Nigerian oilfield involving Shell, its joint venture partner the Italian oil giant Eni, and the government in Abuja.
More than half the money was converted into bags of bribe cash via bureaux de change in Nigeria, while tens of millions was wired to buy a private jet and armoured cars in the US, according to documents compiled by the prosecutors. But ordinary citizens of Nigeria have not seen a penny from the deal – which, it is alleged, was partly negotiated by two ex-MI6 officers hired by Shell as “business and investment advisers”.
The astonishing allegations have been made by an Italian prosecutor, Fabio de Pasquale, whose previous scalps include former Italian leader Silvio Berlusconi.
De Pasquale and his team have spent more than two years following the money trail surrounding the murky sale of Nigeria’s prized Oil Prospecting Licence 245 (OPL 245), a huge block off the coast of west Africa estimated to contain 9.3bn barrels of crude: enough to power the continent for seven years.
Oil giants from the west, China and Russia have coveted its riches for years. But Shell and Eni eventually prevailed, paying $1.3bn to the Nigerian government to secure the field in 2011.
However, within days the bulk of the money was transferred through JP Morgan in London to a convicted Nigerian money launderer – a man with whom both Shell and Eni had been negotiating.