News | December 28, 1999

Tractebel Among Companies Under Investigation

Belgian-utility Tractebel, the crown jewel of Suez Lyonnaise des Eaux's energy arm, confirmed it's among currently under investigation for bribery because of payments it made to three Kazak businessmen in a bid to secure a gas pipeline concession in 1997.

According to Belgian newspaper Le Soir, Belgian and Swiss prosecutors are investigating Tractebel for payments totaling 50 million euros it made to three unnamed Kazak nationals. The three businessmen allegedly used the money, accounted for in Tractebel's books as "consulting fees," to bribe officials of the Central Asian nation and for kickbacks to former Tractebel executives working in collusion with them. Suez recently took over Tractebel by paying 7.5 billion euros or $US7.62 billion for the 49.6% it didn't previously own.

In a written statement, Jacques Van Hee, Tractebel's head of external relations, confirmed the investigation. "A few months ago, the Belgian and Swiss judicial authorities started investigations into possible money-laundering activities carried on by companies based outside the European Union," he said. "Amongst those under investigation are some companies and persons with whom Tractebel had business relations in Kazakhstan."

Van Hee said Tractebel plans to cooperate fully with these investigations, and on Nov. 10, the company lodged a complaint with the examining magistrate (juge d'instruction) in Brussels. "At this stage, Tractebel considers it is bound by a general duty of discretion and will therefore refrain from any comment in order not to prejudice the normal course of the current investigations," Van Hee's statement concluded.

According to today's Wall Street Journal, the Brussels prosecutors' office confirmed the existence of a wide-ranging probe that involves Tractebel, but declined to give any details, pointing out that many of the allegations made by Le Soir had yet to be proved and no charges had been filed.

Van Hee said Tractebel's complaint named a former executive, Nicolas Atherinos, who served as a vice president of Tractebel's international unit, Electricity & Gas International (EGI), who was fired in 1998. Until he was fired, Atherinos was the point man for EGI's investments and ventures in countries of the former Soviet Union.

With confirmation of the bribery scandal, Tractebel also revealed its frustration with the utility's ailing businesses in Kazakstan. Those interests include a local electricity company bought in 1996 and the 20-year concession obtained in June 1997 to operate the country's two natural gas pipelines. Van Hee said Tractebel earmarked a "substantial portion" of a 199-million-euro provision to cover "country risks" in its 1999 accounts for Kazak losses.

Tractebel also hired an independent expert two months ago to assess the company's investments and risk exposure in Kazakstan. Although no decision has been made, Van Hee said the utility could be exiting the Kazakstan market for good.

By April C. Murelio