Italian giant Eni SpA, Royal Dutch Shell Plc, and senior executives will face trial over a $1.1 billion bribery scandal in the 2011 purchase of an offshore oil block in Nigeria, an Italian judge ruled on Wednesday.
The trial will start on March 5 in Milan, judge Giusy Barbara said, according to Bloomberg’s report. The long-awaited decision, initially expected several months ago, will not only affect the two companies but 11 individuals including Eni Chief Executive Officer Claudio Descalzi.
The case is related to the acquisition of a deepwater oil-prospecting license by Eni and Shell in the Gulf of Guinea in 2011. Prosecutors allege that the two companies’ payment of almost $1.1 billion into a Nigerian government escrow account was later distributed as payoffs. While energy producers have come under scrutiny for bribery and corruption in the past, a trial centered around the sitting CEO of an oil major is rare.
“This is really quite a big precedent-setting case,” said Barnaby Pace, a campaigner at watchdog Global Witness, which first shone a light on the alleged transactions. “It’s unusual to see oil majors at the sharp end of the stick in this way,” Pace said by telephone before the decision was announced.
Eni’s board released a statement expressing “full confidence in the correctness and integrity of both the company’s and chief executive’s actions,” and said it’s confident of Eni’s “non-involvement in the alleged illegal conducts.”
Shell said in a statement that it’s “disappointed” by the judge’s decision. “We believe the trial judges will conclude that there is no case against Shell or its former employees,” said Anna Haslam, a London-based spokeswoman. The Anglo-Dutch company, whose former upstream director Malcolm Brinded is among those facing trial, acknowledged in April that it was aware of the destination of part of the payments, but denied wrongdoing.
Marco Calleri, a lawyer for Brinded, declined to comment on Wednesday.
A final court ruling may take years, potentially bringing steep legal costs for the two companies. The average length of a civil trial in Italy was 460 days in 2016, according to the Ministry of Justice.
Eni and Shell are also facing criminal charges in Nigeria over the same deal. In Europe, Dutch investigators visited Shell’s offices in The Hague in 2016 as part of a probe into the same matter.