The accountability of the Ahsanis: Will the architects of the Unaoil bribery scandal get away with their tainted proceeds?

24 February, 2023 | 6 minute read

Saman Ahsani, one of the kingpins of the corrupt Unaoil empire, was recently sentenced in a Houston courtroom to one year in a minimum security prison and a $1.5 million fine after co-operating with a US investigation into how the company “bribed the world”. His father, Ata Ahsani – who a UK court described as allegedly “not only the head of the family but also the head of the conspiracies” – had already agreed to pay a $2.25 million penalty in the US exchange for no action being taken against him. The sentencing of Saman’s brother, Cyrus, has yet again been delayed in the US until later this year.

Together the Ahsani brothers and their father – all UK citizens – ran the Monaco-based energy consultancy that paid millions of dollars in kickbacks to secure lucrative contracts on behalf of 27 companies, including Petrofac, Rolls-Royce and SBM Offshore. The family trio, who all have British passports, reportedly amassed $200 million from Unaoil’s corrupt schemes, despite which their company, Unaoil itself, has faced no corporate investigation.

The long-awaited sentencing of Saman Ahsani partially closes a chapter in an international, multi-agency investigation which exposed bitter power struggles between the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the UK’s Serious Fraud Office (SFO). With controversial deals cut in the US with the Ahsanis, and convictions of their employees quashed in the UK, the Unaoil case raises troubling questions about whether the Ahsanis – as the architects of this lucrative bribery scandal – are getting off exceedingly lightly. 

That’s why we have written to the SFO to ask what action they are taking to investigate and recover any proceeds of Unaoil’s crimes. 

The turf war over the Ahsanis

From the start of their investigation into Unaoil in 2016, the SFO set their sights on prosecuting the Ahsanis in the UK. Despite making good progress, their efforts were undercut when the DOJ struck a deal with the Ahsani brothers as co-operating witnesses. 

The DOJ’s double-dealing strained relations with their UK counterpart and caused an internal rift in the SFO that culminated in the unfair dismissal of Tom Martin, the case controller overseeing the Unaoil investigation. Even more damaging were the SFO’s own dealings, under then new Director Lisa Osofsky, with the Ahsani’s US-based “fixer”, David Tinsley, which ultimately led to three out of four convictions of lower-level defendants being quashed by the Court of Appeal. 

The winners and the losers

By cutting a deal with the Ahsanis, the DOJ not only “snatched away” the top targets of the SFO’s investigation, but also gained significant leverage to advance their investigations into Unaoil’s corporate clients. Saman Ahsani’s much-reduced prison sentence reflects just how “valuable” he has been to the DOJ. The details of his co-operation are shrouded in secrecy, but there is no doubt he has brought billions of dollars within the reach of US authorities. In addition to the financial penalties imposed on Saman Ahsani ($1.5 million) and Ata Ahsani ($2.25 million), the US already has a number of corporate settlements in the bag related to its Unaoil investigation – Rolls Royce ($170 million), SBM Offshore ($238 million), TechnipFMC ($296 million), Amec Foster Wheeler ($18 million) and Honeywell ($160 million). 

The SFO’s Unaoil investigation has returned quite a different set of results, but equally significant – yet easily overlooked – is that the agency followed a very different enforcement strategy. Rather than prioritise plea deals and corporate settlements, the SFO (then under David Green) pursued – from its earliest moves on the Ahsanis – a harder-edged accountability through criminal prosecution. It is impossible to tell what the SFO would have achieved had it been able to continue with its planned prosecution of the Ahsanis. What is clear, is that aside from the quashed convictions, in comparison to the US, the SFO now has precious little else to show for its almost 7-year old investigation into the world’s biggest bribery scheme. With Unaoil related investigations into ABB and KBR closed without any enforcement action, the SFO has one DPA with Amec Foster Wheeler (£103 million) and one conviction, of Petrofac, with the company ordered to pay £70 million in financial penalties. One Petrofac employee, David Lufkin, who pleaded guilty had a £140,000 confiscation order made against him, and one Unaoil employee who pleaded guilty has been ordered to pay £402,465. Meanwhile, the SFO has had to cough upwards of £3.5 million to settle the legal costs of Unaoil defendants whose convictions were overturned. 

Why did the SFO come up short?

Leaving aside comparisons based on the financial yardstick of success and the debate about pursuing DPAs rather than prosecutions, it’s clear that the SFO, particularly under Lisa Osofsky, made some fundamental errors. It was Osofsky’s inappropriate dealings with the Ahsani’s fixer, Tinsley, and subsequent disclosure failures by the agency, that led to three quashed convictions. Admittedly, the agency was dealt a bad hand, being left with the middlemen while the DOJ courted the Unaoil kings. But as top KC, Clare Montgomery, recently highlighted the odds are almost always going to be stacked in favour of the DOJ.

First, the US has far more leeway in negotiating plea deals by inviting suspects to come forward to proffer, as “Queen for a Day”, their knowledge of a crime with the assurance that their evidence will not be used against them in later proceedings. UK prosecutors have no equivalent mechanism under the Serious Organised Crime and Police Act 2005 to incentivise middlemen to spill the beans about their bosses with the assurance of a lighter sentence. Worse yet, the SFO’s recent spate of failed prosecutions of individuals – not least in the Unaoil case – gives those wishing to do the right thing by coming forward little hope that their evidence is likely to result in their bosses being successfully convicted. 

Second, the US’s much more robust corporate liability regime means prosecutors have a much stronger hand to play when negotiating with big companies. While the Bribery Act has made it easier for UK prosecutors to go after companies that fail to prevent bribery, much of Unaoil’s activity happened well before it came into effect. If the SFO had had tougher rules covering the period they were investigating they may well have been able to deliver much better outcomes.

Pursuing the proceeds of Unaoil’s corruption

The SFO can’t change the past, but it can start to put things right. So far it does not appear to have taken any steps to recover Unaoil’s proceeds of crime in the UK. The SFO’s investigation into the four Unaoil executives uncovered schemes to pay $17 million in bribes to secure contracts in Iraq worth $1.7 billion. It is entirely probable that the proceeds of some of this bribery, whether through direct bribes or through corruptly made profits, may have ended up in the UK.  The Pandora Papers revealed that Ata Ahsani invested at least $7.5 million of Unaoil’s proceeds in UK property funds through offshore structures. As UK citizens, it is likely that the Ahsanis may have some assets in the UK. It would be a travesty if these potential proceeds of corruption ended up in the US treasury rather than our own.

Now that criminal proceedings are wrapped up in the UK and Saman Ahsani has been sentenced in the US, Spotlight has written to the SFO to renew our concerns – first raised in 2021 – about the apparent lack of enforcement action in relation to the proceeds of Unaoil’s corruption. Showing resilience and renewed resolve, the SFO needs to now take swift steps to deprive those who escaped criminal liability in the UK from enjoying the fruits of their corruption.

Unaoil bribery stock image

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