Lesotho water project trial targets Italian giant

Impregilo is the last remaining company to be charged in Lesotho’s “clean hands” operation, following Maseru’s discovery that huge foreign bribes were paid to the project’s former CE, Masupha Sole.

Sole is serving 15 years in jail.

Several companies have been convicted on similar charges and fines of R37,5m have been paid.

Impregilo, registered in Milan, is the result of a merger involving a company also named Impregilo and Cogefar-Impresit Costruzioni Generali in 1994.

According to the charge sheet, in October 1990 an employee of the old Impregilo, who stayed on after the merger to work for the new company, made a “consultancy agreement” with Jacobus du Plooy, a South African listed as a witness for the prosecution.

The prosecution claims this agreement was a bribery arrangement. It argues that Sole had already met the MD of the old Impregilo in London, together with Du Plooy, the go-between.

Sole was to ensure that contracts were awarded to the company and would be handsomely rewarded in return.

The prosecution says that, as a result of this “agreement”, Impregilo paid a $1m bribe shared by Du Plooy and Sole. The money was paid into Du Plooy’s Swiss bank account and half was then paid to Sole.

The charge sheet says that in his capacity as CE of the project, Sole was to use his influence to help Impregilo and would be paid only if it won contracts it wanted.

Sole supplied an official of Impregilo with copies of tenders submitted by other companies for contracts that Impregilo wanted to win.

Sole further kept his side of the agreement by asking the Lesotho Highlands Development Agency Board to award the contract to Impregilo.

The prosecution says that even at the time the alleged bribery agreements were concluded, Cogefar, the company that took over Impregilo, must already have known what was happening.

Cogefar had a one-third share in the old Impregilo and it placed its own directors on the board.

Cogefar was in turn controlled by Fiat, and between them these two companies had “effective control of the old Impregilo”.

Because of staff common to the organisations, Cogefar “knew what (the old Impregilo) was doing”, says the prosecution.

A number of other allegations are made to substantiate the claim that Cogefar and the “new” Impregilo must have been aware of what was going on in relation to bribery and yet “recklessly associated itself” with these acts. After the merger, the new company tried to cover up the agreement with Sole and the payments made to him. This they did in a number of ways, says the prosecution, including trying to prevent the authorities in Lesotho from obtaining the Swiss bank records which would have shown the payments made to Sole.

When charges were first brought against the Highlands Water Venture (HWV), of which Impregilo was lead partner, Impregilo also “induced Du Plooy” to sign a document that wrongly exonerated the old Impregilo. The company also “misled the court” when the HWV case first came before a judge.

Although the company has not yet been asked to plead, it has always maintained in press statements that it was not guilty. However, members of the investigation team say they are confident that they will win this case, as they have the others they have brought to court in relation to the Highlands Water Project corruption.

The case is of the utmost importance for Impregilo because it is concerned to defend its reputation in connection with a massive project in Europe — the building of the world’s longest single-span suspension bridge..

Impregilo is a lead partner in the construction of the 3,3km bridge across the Strait of Messina, a contract valued at ‘4,6bn.

The bridge will provide six driving lanes, two service lanes and two rail tracks with a theoretical capacity of 6000 vehicles an hour and 200 trains a day, linking Sicily with the mainland.


September 2006
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