By PIERRE-ANTOINE SOUCHARD
The Associated Press
Thursday, March 22, 2007; 6:26 PM
PARIS -- An investigating judge filed preliminary charges Thursday against the chief executive of Total SA in a corruption case linked to a 1997 contract with Iran, the company and judicial officials said.
Preliminary charges were filed against Total Chief Executive Christophe de Margerie for alleged abuse of company assets and corruption of foreign agents, the judicial officials said. They were not authorized to speak publicly about the case and provided information only on condition of anonymity.
De Margerie, who replaced Thierry Desmarest as Total's CEO in mid-February, was released after two days of questioning in the case. However, he is forbidden to meet with certain people during the investigation, the officials said without elaborating.
De Margerie is also targeted in an investigation into Total's activities in Iraq.
French police are investigating whether Total paid bribes to win a contract to develop the South Pars gas field in the Persian Gulf along with other allegations of wrongdoing, judicial officials have said. The contract was a joint venture with the Russian company Gazprom and Malaysia's Petronas, the officials said.
In a statement, Total confirmed that preliminary charges were filed against its CEO concerning an investigation "related to the development of the South Pars project in Iran." It said it was confident the investigation would show "the absence of any illegal activities."
Total noted that it had signed a contract in 1997 with the National Iranian Oil Company for the project. It confirmed an earlier statement that no laws were broken at the time.
"Once again, the group expresses its full support for its employees and confirms that the agreements for the development of the South Pars project were entered into in compliance with applicable law," the Total statement said.
The Total chief _ who headed exploration and production of Total predecessor TotalFina at the time of the Iran contract _ had been under questioning for hours by investigative magistrate Philippe Courroye before preliminary charges were filed.
De Margerie was taken in for questioning Wednesday.
Under French law, a decision to formally place someone under judicial examination means that the investigative magistrate has determined there is strong evidence to suggest he may have been involved in a crime. It gives the magistrate, who has sweeping powers of investigation, time to pursue a probe. Based on his findings, the magistrate can then decide to send the individual for trial, or he can conclude that no crime was committed and drop the investigation.
Two other Total executives questioned in the case _ Chief Financial Officer Robert Castaigne and the company's upstream operations executive, Philippe Boisseau _ were questioned Wednesday and released with no charges filed, company spokesman Paul Floren said. Total confirmed judicial officials' reports that two former Total employees had been questioned and released as well.
The Paris prosecutor's office opened an investigation in December 2006 for alleged misuse of company assets between 1996 and 2000 and alleged corruption of foreign officials between 2000 and 2003. The investigation began after Swiss judicial officials investigating money laundering sent documents to France, judicial officials said. In March 2006, Swiss authorities had asked to search Total headquarters as part of their money laundering investigation.
Total is suspected of having indirectly paid commissions into two accounts of a Swiss citizen of Iranian origin acting as an intermediary, according to judicial officials. Tens of millions of dollars allegedly passed through the accounts before ending up in an account of a Persian Gulf country, the officials said.
Swiss judicial officials have blocked nearly 9.5 million Swiss francs in the two accounts, the French judicial officials said.
De Margerie is already being investigated in a French probe into the scandal-ridden oil-for-food program in Iraq. Preliminary charges were filed against him in October in that case for alleged "complicity in the abuse of company assets" and "complicity in corrupting foreign officials."