A middleman who received millions of dollars from Unaoil -- a Monaco-based firm now at the center of an international bribery scandal -- in return for improperly influencing officials in U.S.-occupied Iraq was also operating businesses in America. He did all this under the nose of the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI -- for years, without getting caught.
It’s a reminder just how difficult it is for law enforcement to detect and stop corruption.
Since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, the Justice Department has devoted immense resources to fighting foreign corruption on the grounds that bribery abroad destabilizes friendly governments and helps fund terrorism. Under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission have fined dozens of companies hundreds of millions of dollars and prosecuted scores of individuals for bribing foreign officials.
But dating back to 2009, Ahmed al-Jibouri, a man who owns at least one American company, was able to interact closely with top Iraqi officials on Unaoil's behalf, apparently without interference.
A trove of over 100,000 leaked emails that The Huffington Post and Fairfax Media revealed in March includes exchanges in which Unaoil executives and al-Jibouri spoke of plans to pay millions of dollars to two now-former Iraqi oil ministers who could direct lucrative contracts to Unaoil’s multinational corporate clients.
Unaoil wanted al-Jibouri and his Armada Group to funnel payments to those officials and others, according to the emails.
The Armada Group’s website is currently “under construction,” but a cached version from 2014 describes it as an Iraqi firm “officially registered in Jordan, UAE, Italy and USA.” The now-deleted version of the site said the group started in Iraq in 1998, expanded to Jordan in 2005 and opened offices in the U.S. in 2010. It boasted of “a very tight relationship with the valued Iraqi Governmental clients under ministry of Oil, Agriculture and Trade.”
Al-Jibouri told HuffPost in an email that his Armada Group has never worked with Unaoil or operated in the U.S. When asked why the company’s website had listed the U.S. as one of several countries where Armada is registered, he said it was a “mistake.”
But internal Unaoil emails show al-Jibouri communicating with top Unaoil executives over the course of several years, sometimes with his secretary, who used an Armada Group email address, copied on the conversations.
Al-Jibouri and Unaoil executives exchanged emails fine-tuning language on their business contracts and discussing payments to influence oil ministry officials. Two powerful Iraqi officials were given the code names “Teacher” and “M.” Hints within the emails and outside sources have confirmed that the code names referred to Hussain al-Shahristani and Abdul Karim Luaibi, two successive oil ministers in Iraq.
The leaked emails do not definitively indicate whether the discussed payments ultimately reached Iraqi officials.
While Luaibi could not be reached for comment, al-Shahristani denies all impropriety. He was recently sacked as Iraq’s education minister amid continuing anti-corruption protests in that country. Al-Shahristani's allies are blocking investigations into his alleged role in the scheme, a source from Iraq’s anti-corruption agency, the Commission of Integrity, told HuffPost and Fairfax Media.
One Unaoil email also reveals that on at least one occasion, the company sought to pay al-Jibouri’s Armada Group from an HSBC bank account. HuffPost reported in March that HSBC, a British financial giant with a history of corruption, had processed transactions, managed money and vouched for Unaoil.
In addition to heading the Armada Group, al-Jibouri is also the majority owner of a Michigan-based consulting firm called the International Procurement and Contracting Group, which has bid for Iraqi oil service contracts in the past. His business partner, Shakir al-Khafaji, has been tied to the controversial United Nations oil-for-food program under the former Saddam Hussein regime.
The previously unreported news that al-Jibouri owned at least one company incorporated under U.S. laws could place him personally within the jurisdiction of the Justice Department. The FBI and the Justice Department are working with British and Australian authorities investigating Unaoil and dozens of its multinational clients in connection with alleged corruption in the Middle East, Europe and Africa.
The Justice Department declined to comment on al-Jibouri’s role in the Unaoil scandal.
“My real purpose is getting access to Ahmed's best pal Kareem Leaby at the Ministry.”
Unaoil’s relationship with al-Jibouri goes back to at least August 2009. The very first leaked email that mentions him makes clear that the firm is interested in his connections to Iraqi officials.
“I have established contact with Mr. Ahmed Jabouri of Chemic when I was in Amman,” Unaoil’s Iraq manager Basil al-Jarah wrote to CEO Cyrus Ahsani in an email that month. “My real purpose is getting access to Ahmed's best pal Kareem Leaby [Luaibi] at the Ministry.”
Within six months of making contact with al-Jibouri, Unaoil was offering to pay him for help securing the support of his Iraqi contacts. In February 2010, the firm offered al-Jibouri $600,000 to ensure Iraq’s oil ministry handed a contract to Dutch company SBM Offshore to supply four offshore oil rig buoys.
“I would like you to maximize your marketing effort,” al-Jarah instructed al-Jibouri, “to please also secure the 4th buoy to the same source [SBM Offshore] as the 3 under consideration now. The fee for the 4th buoy is $200k separate from the $400K we discussed already making total of $600K for 4 buoys … May god bless us, because our aim is pure and we wish to best serve the country.”
Al-Jarah denied any wrongdoing in connection with Unaoil. SBM Offshore spokeswoman Paula Farquharson-Blengino confirmed that the company worked with Unaoil in the past, but said that "no irregularities were found" during SBM's due diligence vetting process and compliance review.
By March 2010 -- less than a year into the relationship -- al-Jibouri had become so important to Unaoil that company executives worried they were too dependent on his help in Iraq. Al-Jibouri is Unaoil's "only channel to the min[istry]," Cyrus Ahsani warned his father, company founder Ata Ahsani, in an email.
Still, Unaoil's relationship with al-Jibouri continued to expand. In August 2010, the company agreed to pay him $4.5 million to help secure a $750 million oil pipeline contract for the offshore arm of Leighton Holdings, an Australian construction giant.
Around the same time, al-Jibouri was promised $1 million to get ministry officials to favor British oil services company Petrofac in a bidding war against Houston-founded competitor Weatherford International.
Al-Jarah instructed al-Jibouri that he needed “to remove Wetherford [sic] from the list and clear the way and support for Petrofac to win this order ... We are now agreed the figure 1 [million] for this service. But Petrofac must win so we have to follow it through and you get paid when we get paid.”
The internal Unaoil emails show that al-Jibouri’s Iraqi government contacts were suspicious at times that they would not get paid. “These people are very touchy in case we negate on our promise after they deliver the goods,” one email from al-Jarah states.
“We need to remove Wetherford from the list and clear the way and support for Petrofac to win this order ... you get paid when we get paid.”
Unaoil also used al-Jibouri to plant senior officials inside the Iraqi government to help direct work to its clients. In a 2010 email, Unaoil executives talked about installing a hand-picked official at the head of an Iraqi committee overseeing a crude oil export project. After selecting “the right guy to meet our requirements,” al-Jarah wrote to top Unaoil executives about needing to reach out to al-Jibouri to get a “blessing” for the appointment from “right at the top” of the oil ministry.
“Only one man can give the OK for this," al-Jarah explained. "That's the level we must reach.”
Al-Jibouri and his Unaoil business partners eventually developed code language to obscure the nature of their work. Besides the “Teacher” alias for al-Shahristani and “M” for Luaibi, al-Jibouri himself was “Doctor.” They described offering government officials “holidays.”
"On Dr. he says I gave him the OK with 1% discount + 1.5 days holiday for his side," al-Jarah wrote Cyrus Ahsani in a March 2011 email. "He transferred that info to teacher and on that basis teacher gave it the OK."
Unaoil didn't control the Iraqi government's vacation calendar. Contracts between the firm and al-Jibouri, which were attached to the emails, show that a one-day holiday indicated a $1 million payment.
But even with the offers of multimillion-dollar payments, Unaoil didn’t always get its way.
Later that month, al-Jarah told top Unaoil executives that al-Jibouri and al-Shahristani were refusing to push a contract toward Leighton Holdings, citing a past spat with Leighton over a previous contract.
“It seems the Teacher and his assistant are still adamant to block [Leighton],” al-Jarah wrote. “They are not budging from this stand. I have allowed a 5 day holiday and even took it to one week, they are not interested.”
Cyrus Ahsani responded, "[G]o back to Dr and tell him that [Leighton] have said that if they win [the project] then they would allow 5 days or a week + what they would have owed him on the [previous contract]."
Saipem, an Italian competitor, ultimately won that contract.
But the following month, al-Jibouri came through for Unaoil. His Armada Group won a major power plant contract with Iraq and he offered to share the work with Unaoil. By then, al-Shahristani had become the deputy prime minister for energy.
When al-Jarah shared the good news with the company’s top three executives, he added that the ministry had agreed to pay $1.25 million for every megawatt added to the grid, significantly more than the market rate of $850,000 per megawatt.
“We can put to rest the thought the Dr. is phony with suspect connections,” al-Jarah wrote in April 2011. “As you can see his 4 man company pulled off quite a coupe [sic].”
In the midst of all this, al-Jibouri started the International Procurement and Contracting Group in 2009 with al-Khafaji. Both men deny that IPCG was connected to the Armada Group or Unaoil -- although a past version of the Armada Group website lists IPCG as a partner company.
The two businessmen met in Baghdad, according to al-Khafaji. He had taken the bold move of opening a Chrysler dealership in the war-torn city, and al-Jibouri wanted to buy a car. They became friendly, and later that year, al-Jibouri, who already headed the Armada Group, suggested they join forces to start a business lining up U.S. manufacturers and suppliers for Iraqi contracts.
Al-Khafaji’s own record is not squeaky clean. He spent four months in U.S. prison in the 1980s for a “technical violation” after failing to notify the Customs Service that he was carrying several guns in his baggage en route to Iraq. (He said that officials at the airport told him he didn't need to fill out paperwork unless he also had ammunition.)
An outspoken critic of the Iraq War, al-Khafaji provided funding to Scott Ritter, a former U.N. weapons inspector in Iraq, to produce a 2001 documentary that described Iraq as a “defanged tiger” and U.N. sanctions there as immoral. In 2004, al-Khafaji was one of several people listed in a U.S. government report as having received vouchers from Saddam Hussein's government to sell or trade oil under the U.N.’s oil-for-food program.
Whatever else they did with other partners, al-Jibouri and al-Khafaji agree that their joint business venture has been a failure. Under one contract, IPCG paid a U.S. company to produce pumps for use in Iraq. Then the Iraqis rejected the pumps, claiming they didn’t meet the contract’s specifications. Al-Khafaji said he suspects they rejected the pumps because they preferred a competitor who would pay a bribe. Another deal faltered when IPCG had to call off shipping equipment to the Baiji refinery in Iraq because the self-described Islamic State had taken over the site. (Iraqi forces later retook the refinery.)
Al-Khafaji told HuffPost he was skeptical that al-Jibouri ever had the ability to curry favor with Iraqi officials by paying bribes. “We have lost a lot of money and he is the majority owner in this company,” al-Khafaji said of IPCG. “He hasn’t been able to do anything!”
IPCG is no longer seeking new contracts in Iraq. “It’s a waste of time, a waste of money,” al-Khafaji said.
“They’re crooks. In Iraq, they are crooks.”
The revelations about Unaoil’s operations in Iraq have “become a talking point within the society,” Lukman Faily, Iraq’s ambassador to the U.S., told HuffPost in a recent interview.
Late last month, protesters stormed Baghdad’s heavily fortified “Green Zone,” which houses the parliament, to denounce the rampant corruption in their country. Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, already facing mounting pressure to implement anti-corruption reforms, has directed the Commission of Integrity to investigate the allegations of bribery in the oil industry and called on the judiciary take appropriate legal action.
But al-Jibouri maintains that his Armada Group “never has had any dealings with Unaoil” and denies knowing al-Shahristani or Luaibi, the two Iraqi oil ministers.
When pressed on the leaked emails and business contracts that suggest otherwise, he said, “I stand by my earlier response."