BHP Billiton Faces Bribery Charges After Abandoned Project

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) and the country’s financial regulator have informed Australia-based mining giant BHP Billiton it could still be charged over allegations the company bribed overseas officials, which include claims of improper payments to members of the Cambodian government.

Prime Minister Hun Sen personally oversaw a 2006 deal for BHP Billiton to explore 100,000 hectares of Mondolkiri province for bauxite. The company pulled out of Cambodia in 2009 as the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) asked that BHP Billiton provide evidence relating to payments that could have breached the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

News of an investigation into the deal emerged in April 2010, but little progress has been reported since. The Australian Federal Police (AFP) initiated its own investigation in February, after a report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) criticized Australian enforcement of OECD bribery rules, citing as an example the case of an unnamed company thought to be BHP Billiton.

In a statement on Friday, BHP Billiton said it had already submitted evidence to the DOJ and was cooperating with all relevant authorities.

“As a part of the U.S. process, the SEC and DOJ have recently notified the Group of the issues they consider could form the basis of enforcement actions and discussions are continuing,” the statement said.

The statement does not mention Cambodia, but referred to allegations in China and elsewhere.

“The issues relate primarily to matters in connection with previously terminated exploration and development efforts, as well as hospitality provided as part of the Company’s sponsorship of the 2008 Beijing Olym­pics,” it says.

“In light of the continuing nature of the investigations it is not appropriate at this stage for BHP Billiton to comment further or to predict outcomes.”

Diplomatic cables released under Australia’s freedom of information law in March illuminated the hands-on involvement of both the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh and Mr. Hun Sen in the bauxite deal in Mondolkiri.

When Mr. Hun Sen was in Australia to sign off on the deal, Water Resources Minister Lim Kean Hor told the National Assembly that the prime minister had phoned him to say BHP Billiton had agreed to pay $2.5 million of “tea money,” a term widely used to refer to bribes.

The government insists the money, which the company agreed to pay alongside a $1 million fee for the bauxite exploration license itself, went into a “social fund.”

In March, the Council of Ministers Press and Quick Reaction Unit hit back at what it called a “malicious” Australian news report highlighting Mr. Hun Sen’s role in the 2006 deal.

The statement insisted such a role was a “routine part of the prime minister’s job” and insisted that only $1.35 million was ever paid to the government, since the project was cut short.

In June, the AFP said it had originally held off investigating the deal because U.S. authorities had launched their own investigation.

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