Federal regulators have charged a former CEO of Swiss oil services company Noble Corp. and two other executives with bribing Nigerian government officials to get permits for drilling rigs in that country.
The Securities and Exchange Commission on Friday filed civil charges against the three executives of violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act from 2003 through 2007.
They are former CEO Mark Jackson, former controller and head of internal audit Thomas O'Rourke, and James Ruehlen, who is the director and division manager of Noble's Nigerian subsidiary.
O'Rourke settled the charges by agreeing to pay a $35,000 fine. He neither admitted nor denied wrongdoing. Jackson and Ruehlen are disputing the charges.
Noble, which has operations worldwide and an office in Sugar Land, Texas, was charged with criminal and civil foreign-bribery violations in November 2010 as part of what the government called a "sweep" of the oil services industry. The company cooperated with government investigators and wasn't prosecuted. It also agreed to pay about $5.6 million in restitution and a $2.6 million criminal fine.
The SEC's charges were the latest action in the government's efforts to combat overseas corruption in international business. A number of U.S. and foreign companies have been charged in recent years with violating the anti-corruption law, which makes it illegal to bribe foreign government officials or company executives to secure or retain business.
In its civil lawsuit filed in Houston, the SEC said that Jackson and Ruehlen bribed Nigerian customs officials to process phony paperwork showing that Noble's oil rigs were moved in and out of the country even when they weren't. The purpose was to save the company substantial costs of exporting rigs from Nigeria and then re-importing them with new permits. O'Rourke helped approve the bribes and allowed the payments to be falsely recorded as legitimate operating expenses for Noble, according to the SEC.
"These executives knowingly authorized and paid foreign officials to process false documents, and they consciously concealed the scheme from Noble's audit committee," Gerald Hodgkins, an associate director of the SEC's enforcement division, said in a statement.
Jackson's attorney, David Krakoff, called the SEC's allegations "baseless." He said the former Noble CEO "will vigorously defend himself in court, where the evidence will show what the SEC already knows: that at all times Mr. Jackson acted in good faith at Noble.
"He looks forward to clearing his good name in this proceeding," Krakoff said in a statement.
F. Joseph Warin, an attorney representing Ruehlen, said it was his client who initially raised the issue within the company. Ruehlen "fully cooperated throughout the investigation and always acted in an ethical and transparent manner," Warin's statement said. "The claims against Mr. Ruehlen are wrong and they will be proven so at trial."