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Former oil executive pleads guilty to bribing Nigerian officials

[JURIST] James Edward Steph, a former oil executive of a subsidiary of Willbros Group Inc. [corporate website], pleaded guilty [press release] Monday to charges of conspiracy relating to a scheme to bribe Nigerian officials heading the country's state-owned oil company, Nigerian National Petroleum Corporation (NNPC) [corporate website]. According to the US Department of Justice (DOJ) [official website], Steph admitted to engaging in a conspiracy with other Willbros employees in 2003 to exchange payments totaling $6 million with NNPC officials, a Nigerian government official, and a Nigerian political party for a major construction and engineering contract on a base oil pipelines owned by NNPC. As part of the plea agreement, Steph, who was indicted [press release, PDF] in July, has agreed to cooperate with the DOJ's investigation into other violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) [text; DOJ backgrounder] in connection with Nigeria's oil industry. Steph also admitted that he conspired with Jim Bob Brown, a former Willbros executive who pleaded guilty [press release] in related bribery charges in 2006, to provide bribes totaling $1.8 million to Nigerian government officials in early 2005. Judge Sim Lake of the US District Court for the Southern District of Texas scheduled Steph's sentencing for January 25, 2008. Steph faces up to five years' imprisonment and a maximum fine of $250,000.

Willbros has entered into tentative settlement agreements [Tulsa World report] with the DOJ and the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) [official website] under which it will pay approximately $32.3 million for its violations of the FCPA related to bribes provided to officials in Bolivia, Nigeria and Ecuador. In September 2006, Steph's co-conspirator Brown settled [press release] civil claims [complaint, PDF] filed by the SEC connected to the bribery scandal. AP has more. The Houston Chronicle has additional coverage.

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