SFO Used ‘Misstatements’ to Justify Unaoil Raid, Lawyer Says

  • Authorities raided Unaoil office, executives’ homes in Monaco
  • Oil services provider wants U.K. judicial review of operation

U.K. prosecutors used “material misstatements” to convince Monaco officials to raid the local office and homes of directors of Unaoil Monaco SAM this year as part of an illegal fishing expedition, a lawyer for the company told a London judge.

The Serious Fraud Office misled authorities in Monaco, and the operation should be reviewed by a U.K. court, Hugo Keith, a lawyer for Unaoil, said Thursday. Unaoil is seeking a judicial review -- a process to scrutinize the actions of a public body.

The U.K. prosecutor disclosed the criminal investigation publicly in July, saying it was looking at suspected offences of bribery, corruption and money laundering. Three executives -- Ata Ahsani, Cyrus Ahsani and Saman Ahsani -- were arrested during the March raid of the office and their residences, which resulted in 65 containers of material being brought to the U.K. by the SFO in a Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van, Keith said.

The SFO’s request to Monaco centered on allegations of bribery in Iraq, including the activities of Rolls-Royce Holdings Ltd. and Leighton Offshore Pte. Ltd. in connection with Unaoil. The company, which provides operational and advisory services to the oil and gas industry, says the material taken in the raids included documents not involving Iraq.

"Had the true position been conveyed, the request would have looked much less urgent; the contention that there was ongoing illegality would have appeared much less convincing," Keith said in court papers. "This was, quite simply, far too broad a formulation and amounted to an impermissible fishing expedition."

On March 22, the day before the SFO asked the Monaco authorities for help, Basil al-Jarah, an Iraqi business partner of Unaoil’s, was arrested while in possession of two checks dated from 2013 and 2014 from the account of Ata Ahsani. The checks -- worth 980,000 pounds ($1.2 million) and 925,000 pounds -- were both made payable to Armada, a company Unaoil used to make corrupt payments, the SFO alleged in court papers Thursday.

The SFO said it has reasonable grounds to suspect offenses have been committed “involving complex and serious fraud” and the request for a judicial review should be dismissed. The agency asked Monaco for help with the raids a week before it knew the Huffington Post was going to publish an article about Unaoil because it wanted to avoid any evidence being destroyed, it said.

The Ahsanis were interviewed by the SFO in May and shown e-mails found on al-Jarah’s computer. The men read prepared statements and declined to answer further questions, the SFO said. They were invited to attend another interview in June but refused.

Unaoil is the latest company to seek a judicial review of the SFO’s processes in an investigation. Soma Oil & Gas Holdings Ltd. failed to convince a London court in August to carry out a judicial review over concerns the company may become insolvent as a result of it being the subject of an SFO probe.

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