A British-Iranian consultant whose company fixed billions of dollars of corrupt energy deals was sentenced to just over a year in US prison on Monday, bringing a partial close to a bribery scandal that strained US-UK relations and tarnished Britain’s Serious Fraud Office.
Saman Ahsani, who helped run Monaco-based Unaoil, was at the heart of a sprawling empire of fixers and middlemen who paid bribes on behalf of companies such as Rolls-Royce and UK oilfield services group Petrofac.
US prosecutors said at a sentencing hearing in Houston that Ahsani was a key player in a “pervasive and wide-ranging criminal enterprise” that had “lined the pockets of corrupt government officials” around the world.
But they added that he had been an “open book” since working with prosecutors and had “done everything he can” to assist the US government’s case.
The Unaoil scandal broke in 2016 and has laid bare the criminal underbelly of the global energy market, highlighting the role of western companies in corrupt dealings in countries such as Iraq, Kazakhstan and Libya.
Ahsani was Unaoil’s chief operating officer, a role in which he greased the wheels of corruption across Africa, the Middle East and central Asia by helping clients win oil and gas-related contracts through paying kickbacks to government officials.
The US Department of Justice had sought a 15-month sentence, the court heard. Ahsani will serve 12 months and one day in a minimum security prison and will pay a $1.5mn penalty.
The Oxford-educated 49-year-old pleaded guilty in the US in 2019 with his brother Cyrus as part of a co-operation deal. Saman Ahsani had initially been detained in Italy the previous year under a European arrest warrant, after the SFO sought to extradite him. Unbeknown to the UK anti-graft agency, US prosecutors were also in talks with Saman about cutting a deal. They succeeded in extraditing him to the US, triggering a diplomatic bust-up.
Both brothers have been out on bail since their guilty pleas. The tussle between US and UK authorities over who would prosecute the pair caused a rift between the countries and marred the tenure of SFO director Lisa Osofsky.
Last year, a report commissioned by the UK government criticised Osofsky for her contacts with a representative for the Ahsanis who sought to influence the case, and partially blamed her for failings that led to the quashing of three other UK-based Unaoil convictions.
The sentencing hearing followed years of delays in a case that has been shrouded in darkness. The Ahsanis’ pleas in 2019 were held in secret and redacted court records were only later unsealed after the Financial Times, The Guardian and Global Investigations Review — represented by the Reporters Committee for the Freedom of the Press — intervened in 2020 ahead of sentencing then-scheduled for October that year.
Ahead of Monday’s hearing, both Saman Ahsani and US prosecutors filed their sentencing recommendations to the judge in secret. As part of the plea deal, the justice department had agreed not to oppose certain requests for leniency. Saman faced a maximum of five years in prison. Cyrus is set to be sentenced later this year.
Unaoil was an Ahsani family business, with Saman joining in 2003. The consultancy operated through a sophisticated network of subsidiaries and affiliated companies and helped big corporates win contracts in oil and gas-rich countries.
The group claimed its means were legitimate, involving hard-won relationships and knowledge, but Unaoil also paid millions of dollars of kickbacks to well-placed officials and helped to rig auctions. The monies were routed through shell companies and disguised as sales consulting contracts or payment for “engineering” services. Information about Unaoil’s bribery first came to light in 2016 with a leak of documents to Australian outlet The Age, which dubbed the consultancy: “the company that bribed the world”.
Unaoil paid bribes on behalf of 27 companies including SBM Offshore and Rolls-Royce, according to US charges that the Ahsanis admitted. The charges detail how the brothers destroyed incriminating documents, flash drives and paper trails to conceal their corruption after it came to light in 2016.
The consultancy’s conduct spawned a string of corruption probes globally and put UK and US authorities on a collision course over who would take down the kingpins. The clash was ultimately won by the US, which saw the Ahsanis as highly valuable witnesses who could unlock further cases against their corporate clients.
The struggle led to unusual clashes between US and UK officials, with the DoJ in July 2018 sending to the SFO a formal complaint by the Ahsanis against the lead SFO lawyer on the case. The lawyer, Tom Martin, was suspended and later fired by the SFO for swearing at an FBI agent two years earlier, but an employment tribunal found he was unfairly dismissed. The tribunal found that both the DoJ and the Ahsanis wanted Martin “removed so as to prevent difficulty with their joint wish to have [Saman] Ahsani extradited to the USA”.
Osofsky, a former FBI director appointed head of the UK’s SFO in August 2018, was also drawn into the scandal over her personal contacts with a representative for the Ahsanis, David Tinsley, who had helped broker the US plea deal.
Tinsley, a retired Drug Enforcement Agency official, had offered to persuade a former Unaoil executive and business partner to plead guilty in the UK in return for the SFO abandoning its case against the Ahsanis. The SFO ultimately dropped its pursuit of Cyrus and Saman after they agreed a deal with the DoJ. Three former executives found guilty in the UK as a result of the Unaoil probe had their convictions overturned on appeal in part because of Tinsley’s role in the broader case.
Osofsky said the government-commissioned review of the affair was a “sobering read for anyone who believes in the mission and purpose of the SFO” and added that implementing a series of recommendations to improve the office was “our most pressing priority”.