A Congolese presidential advisor played a key role in awarding oil licenses now at the heart of a corruption probe by Italian authorities that has engulfed energy giant Eni SpA and the family of its chief executive.
The advisor, Denis Gokana, headed a committee that awarded licenses to Italy’s Eni and a Congolese partner company he founded, according to government records and confirmed by Gokana via email.
The Congolese president appointed Gokana in 2013 to head a committee responsible for boosting the role of the country’s private sector in the economy, a role that was disclosed at the time in the official government gazette.
This is the first time the role played by a key Congolese official in events at the center of the Italian corruption probe has been publicly revealed.
Gokana, who is special natural resources advisor to Congolese President Denis Sassou Nguesso, denied any wrongdoing.
State-controlled Eni, one of the world’s largest oil companies, disclosed last year that it was under investigation by Milan prosecutors for corruption in Congo Republic.
It was reported on Sept. 28 that Italian prosecutors were investigating the wife of Eni Chief Executive Claudio Descalzi as part of its corruption probe.
The inquiry revolves around agreements signed between 2013 and 2015 by Eni’s Congolese subsidiary with local partners and seeks to determine whether certain contracts hid a form of bribe.
Eni denies any wrongdoing and said it had no say in the awarding of the licenses or the government’s choice of its local partner – Africa Oil & Gas Corporation (AOGC), the company founded by Gokana.
A lawyer for Descalzi’s wife, Marie Magdalena Ingoba, said his client had no comment.
The Congo investigation comes as Eni faces allegations alongside Royal Dutch Shell that it paid more than 1 billion dollars in bribes to gain control over a Nigerian oil field.
Italian authorities have charged Eni, Shell and 13 individuals, including Descalzi, with violating Italy’s international corruption law in an ongoing case in Milan.
Shell, Eni, Descalzi and the other individuals have denied any wrongdoing in the Nigeria case.
The company has said it is confident the allegations leveled at it by prosecutors would be found groundless.
In the Congo matter, the fresh detail about the role of the president’s advisor raises questions about Eni’s due diligence into its local partner, said Natasha White, a London-based researcher at anti-corruption campaign group Global Witness.
The non-governmental organisation identified the ties between Eni and Gokana and shared the findings with Reuters.
A former Eni director told prosecutors that while at the company, he raised concerns to CEO Descalzi about ties between Eni’s Congolese partner company and the president’s advisor, and that the CEO dismissed them, according to a 2015 deposition reviewed.
Descalzi “disputed the basis of my remarks and told me my behavior was paralyzing Eni’s commercial activities in the petroleum sector,” former board member Luigi Zingales, a finance professor, told prosecutors.
Descalzi, who has led Eni since 2014, is not a target of the corruption probe related to the company’s Congolese operations, according to Eni and a person familiar with the investigation.
Eni, Africa’s biggest foreign oil and gas producer, declined to comment on Zingales’ statements to prosecutors but said it didn’t believe he was in a position to properly assess its governance.
The company said an audit conducted with the help of external lawyers and consultants found no evidence of corruption in relation to operations in Congo.
Eni said its due diligence did identify that its local partner company had been founded by presidential advisor Gokana but concluded that he no longer held an ownership stake or served as a manager.
Asked whether the company was aware that Gokana headed the committee that awarded the licenses, Eni said: “Eni has no evidence of knowledge of any specific of alleged activity rendered by Mr.
Gokana for the benefit of Eni in the award processes.”
A Congolese government spokesman did not respond to requests for comment addressed to the president and the government.
Congo Republic, sub-Saharan Africa’s third-largest oil producer by volume, is one of Eni’s key African operations. (Reuters/NAN)