Total boss may face trial over oil bribes

The case relates to oil and gas contracts awarded in oil-rich Iran in the 1990s and early 2000s.

The chief executive officer of French oil group Total, Christophe de Margerie, speaks during the general meeting of shareholders on 17 May 2013 in Paris. Picture: AFP/PIERRE VERDY

PARIS - US and French legal authorities cracked down on Total on Wednesday with $398 million (263.2 million pounds) in fines and plans to bring the oil company and its boss to trial for alleged corrupt payments in Iran.

Investigations into the affair by the US financial regulator the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) date back to 2003 and relate to oil and gas contracts awarded in the oil-rich Gulf country in the 1990s and early 2000s.

Paris-based Total flagged the likelihood of settlement with the SEC in July when it took a 316 million euro (271.1 million pounds) charge against its accounts for Wednesday's payment - a relatively small sum for a company that makes billions of dollars in profits every quarter.

The payments are part of a settlement of US civil and criminal charges.

Total and its chief executive, Christophe de Margerie, who was in charge of the company's Middle East division at the time, have also been under investigation in France in connection with the same affair since 2006.

But Wednesday's announcement ensures the affair is not completely over, as the Paris prosecutor recommended that de Margerie - a well-known and widely recognised figure in international oil circles - should face trial for allegedly corrupting public officials and misuse of company funds.

The US Department of Justice also weighed in.

"We announce the first coordinated action by French and US law enforcement in a major foreign bribery case," said Acting Assistant Attorney General Raman.

"Our two countries are working more closely today than ever before to combat corporate corruption, and Total, which bought business through bribes, now faces the criminal consequences across two continents," Raman said.

A decision on whether the outspoken, moustachioed 61-year-old de Margerie will face trial is up to the French investigating magistrate.

Western Europe's third-largest oil company, Total has been talking to the US authorities since 2010 about an out-of-court settlement and took last year's charge "in light of recent progress" on those discussions.

A Total spokesman confirmed the group had been notified of the Paris prosecutor's recommendation and said the company and de Marjerie would demonstrate in any trial that their behaviour had been legal.

Shares in Total closed down 1.7 percent at 39.40 euros.