trial of eight leaders of the Bourbon group for corruption in Africa

trial of eight leaders of the Bourbon group for corruption in Africa
trial of eight leaders of the Bourbon group for corruption in Africa

The former tax director of the oil services company Bourbon assured Monday that he had received $250,000 as a “bonus” for having drastically reduced a tax adjustment in Nigeria, on the first day of the trial of those responsible for the group before the Marseille criminal court.

Marc Cherqui is appearing for bribery of foreign public officials alongside six managers or former managers of the Bourbon group, which at the time had a turnover of one billion euros, as well as the Nigerian head of one of its many subsidiaries.

Initially referred to the criminal court, the company Bourbon Corporation is not represented, its judicial liquidation having been closed on March 20, 2024. The group was taken over in 2020 by its banking partners.

The affair broke out in October 2012 when Marc Cherqui was arrested by customs officers at Marseille-Provence airport. Returning from a mission in Nigeria where he supervised negotiations on a tax adjustment for Bourbon subsidiaries, he traveled with 250,000 dollars, in 100 notes, hidden in his suitcase.

He ended up telling investigators that it was a leftover bribe paid to the Nigerian tax authorities to be given to his employer. The statements of this former tax inspector who spent his entire career abroad in the banking sector led to the indictment of the Bourbon staff.

The $250,000 was given to Marc Cherqui by a Nigerian tax advisor who led negotiations with local authorities on a recovery announced to the tune of $227 million.

“It’s a bonus for the work I had done,” Mr. Cherqui said on Monday. According to the prosecution, the tax bill had been reduced to $4.1 million, after payment of $2.7 million to paid agents of the Nigerian tax authorities.

“Gratification”

“I was waiting for Bourbon to decide whether or not I should keep this bonus which therefore did not completely belong to me,” said Mr. Cherqui, whom the president of the court Laure Humeau confronted with her previous version of a remaining negotiation brought back to the company’s Marseille headquarters.

He claimed to have slipped to Christian Lefevre, then general manager of Bourbon, to whom he was making a brief report on the Nigerian tax audit: “By the way, I received a bonus. He replied: we’ll talk about it again.”

At the bar of the court, Mr. Lefevre denies this conversation. His deputy, Rodolphe Bouchet, then global marketing director, also denies having been made aware of a “gift” to Marc Cherqui by the Nigerian subsidiary. “I never told him that society would be grateful to him,” he assures.

Facing the judges, Mr. Cherqui evokes a form of conspiracy. “I can’t say for sure, but I have the impression that everyone knew about being trapped.”

Denouncing Bourbon’s “aggressive tax practices”, he suggests having thus paid for a form of rigidity. “I expressed my deep disagreement but I was dedicated. Bourbon was a very good company with some pretty shocking practices.”

In his order for referral to the court, the investigating judge deplored “an effective and assumed desire to evade payment of taxes legitimately due”.

Questioned about the origin of the $250,000, the defendants affirmed that the trace of their disbursement was never found in the accounts of the Nigerian subsidiaries. The only defendant from Nigeria, Kunle Areogun, at the time director of Bourbon Interoil Nigeria Limited (BINL), said he had “no idea” of their origin.

Suggesting that it could have been taken from a safe containing sums intended to pay ransoms in the event of the group’s employees being kidnapped, the president of the court did not obtain a response.

“I am deeply ashamed. I regret my act but I have been paying for it for twelve years,” assured Marc Cherqui, referring to “a relentlessness of Bourbon” which would have prevented him from finding a new job.

The trial is scheduled until May 31.

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