Calgary company a partner in Exxon Liberian oil deal that raised corruption concerns

An anti-corruption group says Exxon Mobil worked with Calgary-based Canadian Overseas Petroleum to buy rights to drill in an area off the coast of West Africa despite its concerns about possible corruption.

Anti-corruption group says Canadian Overseas Petroleum may have helped Exxon skirt U.S. corruption laws

Anti-corruption monitor Global Witness claims Exxon knew corrupt government officials might be behind a Liberian company that sold off oil rights. (Mark Humphrey/Associated Press)

An anti-corruption group says Exxon Mobil worked with Calgary-based Canadian Overseas Petroleum to buy rights to drill in an area off the coast of West Africa despite its concerns about possible corruption.

Global Witness said Thursday that Exxon knew that the oil field, called Block 13, had been previously awarded to another company through bribery.

The group said in a 40-page report that Exxon paid $120 million US in 2013 for rights to explore for oil in the block by using the Canadian company as a middleman. Global Witness said the sale was accompanied by more than $200,000 in unusual payments from Liberia's oil agency to six government officials who approved the deal.

Exxon said that all payments went to verified Liberian government accounts. A spokesman said the company is confident that the deal complied with Liberian and international anti-corruption laws.

Canadian Overseas Petroleum said its due diligence showed that there were no legal problems with the deal, it had legal advice on its anti-money laundering and anti-corruption obligations, and that there was no credible evidence that the Liberian seller was owned by former officials.

Global Witness is a London-based group that campaigns against corruption that often involves exploitation of natural resources in developing countries.

Concern over U.S. anti-corruption laws

Jonathan Gant, an investigator for Global Witness, said the group received thousands of documents from sources in Liberia who were unhappy about the deal.

A document purporting to be a 2011 Exxon Mobil PowerPoint presentation to Liberian officials in London said the company wanted to structure its acquisition of Block 13 rights in a certain way "due to ExxonMobil concern over issues regarding U.S. anti-corruption laws".

Exxon thought some owners of the Block 13 rights, a company called Peppercoast, may have been Liberian government officials at the time of winning the rights, and that Liberia's oil agency may have paid off legislators, according to the presentation.

Irving, Texas-based Exxon structured the deal as two contracts that resulted in Exxon being the majority owner of Block 13 rights while Canadian Overseas Petroleum got a minority stake.

Exxon says process was 'transparent'

Exxon spokesman Scott Silvestri said the terms of the deal were ratified by Liberia's government. "The process was transparent and the terms of the contract are publicly available," he said.

Silvestri said all money was paid to verified government accounts in ways approved by the Liberian legislature and complied with local and international law. He said Exxon is committed to complying with the U.S. anti-bribery law, called the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, and the laws of countries where it does business.