BHP’s Use of Jewelry to Cut Tax Bill Disputed by Colombia

BHP Billiton Ltd., the world’s most valuable miner, underpaid royalties in Colombia by listing items such as jewelry and entertainment among production costs, according to the preliminary findings of a government audit.

By claiming expenses including a gold watch strap, English classes, concerts and a production of ‘The Vagina Monologues,’ BHP’s Cerro Matoso ferronickel mine underpaid 62 billion pesos ($33 million) in taxes between 1998 and 2003 when adjusted to today’s prices, the comptroller’s office said in an e-mail that contained a list of the disputed expenses.

The agency, known as Contraloria General de la Republica, put a lien on Cerro Matoso assets for that amount by August and plans to make a final decision in June. The audit of the mine’s previous operating contracts comes as BHP seeks to expand the world’s second biggest ferronickel mine and faces community protests over alleged pollution.

BHP declined to respond to e-mailed questions on the tax case. While the company appears to have complied with its contracts, the comptroller general “has the final word on this,” Maria Garcia, head of the government’s mining agency, said in an Oct. 3 interview in Bogota.

“There were some ‘costs’ applied to the royalties that clearly are not part of those related to the production activity,” the comptroller’s office said in the report.

Nickel Slump

Cerro Matoso’s annual production of ferronickel, used mainly to make stainless steel, was 50,800 metric tons through June 30. Nickel futures on the London Metal Exchange tumbled 21 percent in the past year, the most among industrial metals.

In December, the government extended Cerro Matoso’s mine lease with a gradual increase in royalty payments from 12 percent to 14 percent through 2029. If extended to 2044, the new arrangements could double the government’s take from the mine, based on a 50 percent increase in processing capacity, the company said in a presentation sent by e-mail.

Last year the mine paid 133 billion pesos in royalties.

Demonstrations disrupted operations this week. BHP said by e-mail yesterday that tests show Cerro Matoso complies with emission limits and doesn’t impact air quality in surrounding communities.