Former prime minister Jean Chrétien played an instrumental role in persuading the government of Chad to grant lucrative oil and gas rights in 2009 to Calgary’s Griffiths Energy International Inc., says the country’s former ambassador to Canada.
Mahamoud Bechir said he attended a meeting with Mr. Chrétien and the country’s long-serving president, Idriss Déby, and its then-Minister of Petroleum and Energy in September 2009. During the meeting, held at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Washington, D.C., the former prime minister promoted the fledgling company, which was struggling to secure oil concessions in the African country.
Griffiths’ pursuit of energy riches in Chad landed the company in legal trouble when it was discovered that the company had paid $2-million (U.S.) to a consulting company owned by Mr. Bechir’s wife. Last week, Griffiths Energy pleaded guilty to bribery charges in an Alberta court and agreed to pay a $10.35-million penalty.
There is no suggestion or evidence that Mr. Chrétien was involved in any of the dealings that resulted in the bribery case, nor that he had knowledge of the payment to the ambassador’s wife. Mr. Chrétien is counsel to Bay Street law firm Heenan Blaikie, which served as Griffiths Energy’s legal adviser from Aug. 2009 to Jan. 2011. It is common practice for major law firms to hire retired politicians to help build relationships with domestic and foreign countries.
At Heenan Blaikie, Mr. Chrétien has helped a number of Canadian companies establish ties with a variety of African countries.
Mr. Chrétien declined through a spokesman to discuss the meeting, citing client confidentiality. A spokesman for Heenan Blaikie also declined comment.
In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Bechir, who was fired from his job as Chad’s ambassador to South Africa on the weekend, portrayed Mr. Chrétien as a man who helped Griffiths’ senior management gain access to key officials in the Chadian government. The ex-ambassador said his wife, Nouracham Niam, wrote a formal letter to the embassy proposing the meeting, which he approved “because this is Jean Chrétien. … He has the priority because he was the former Prime Minister of Canada.”
The meeting took place in a small conference room next to Mr. Déby’s suite at the Ritz. According to Mr. Bechir and other people familiar with the session, Heenan Blaikie lawyer Jacques Bouchard Jr. and two company founders, Brad Griffiths and Naeem Tyab, were also in attendance.
Mr. Bechir described Mr. Chrétien “a very funny guy,” who set a jovial tone during the meeting and reassured the Chad delegation about Griffiths Energy’s potential.
“This is a big testimony from a high-profile person,” Mr. Bechir said. “I think that facilitated – it give some confidence to the government these are not just a bunch of people who are dreaming in the internet.”
“I think that gave the confidence to the government that these people are serious, Griffiths’ company is serious.”
Mr. Déby responded by telling the Griffiths team that “they are welcome” in Chad, Mr. Bechir said. One month later, on Oct. 26, 2009, Griffiths Energy signed a memorandum of understanding to conduct due diligence on two oil blocks.
The agreement was a huge leap forward for a relatively unknown company that had failed after a number of visits to Chad to purchase rights to produce oil and gas in the country’s rich southern oil fields. Mr. Griffiths, a former Bay Street investment banker, was so entranced with the investment opportunities in Chad that Mr. Bechir said the executive told him he would change his first name to Chad from Brad if the oil and gas investment was approved. He also promised a number of investments to build everything from new roads in Chad to a radio station at the Washington embassy, the ambassador said.
Griffiths Energy ultimately secured formal rights to the Chad properties in January, 2011, but the victory was short-lived.
Mr. Griffiths drowned in July, 2011, in a boating accident. The company’s new management team discovered problematic contracts in the fall of that year and alerted the police to them, which culminated in last week’s guilty plea.
Federal prosecutors have begun proceedings to force Ms. Niam to forfeit the $2-million payment and her large holding of shares in the company. According to an agreed statement of facts released by the court, in the fall of 2009, Griffiths Energy sold Ms. Niam and two friends 4 million so-called “founders shares” for a fraction of a penny each.
The statement said Ms. Niam was originally awarded 1.6 million shares for $1,600. Mr. Bechir said his wife later purchased an additional 1.6 million Griffiths Energy shares that were awarded to their children’s teacher, Adoum Hassan, who was one of the original recipients of the founders shares.
Her stock holding is currently valued at about $20-million. Mr. Bechir said he plans to fight prosecutor’s plans to force his wife to forfeit the shares.
Jacquie McNish et Carrie Tait