Prominent Canadian law firms Heenan Blaikie and Macleod Dixon provided legal services in connection with a $2-million payment by Griffiths Energy International Inc. to the wife of an African diplomat, a transaction that led the company to pay a $10.35-million fine in a bribery case this week.
According to people familiar with the case, the junior oil and gas company turned to the blue chip corporate law firms to help guide it in the late 2000s through a series of difficult negotiations with officials from Chad, which ranks as one of the world's most corrupt countries. When a new slate of Griffiths executives uncovered the $2-million (U.S.) bribe in 2011, it alerted police, sparking an investigation that culminated this week in a settlement agreement and fine that a Calgary judge on Friday called "an embarrassment to all Canadians."
Gary Guidry, Griffiths Energy's chief executive officer since mid-2011, said the company "regrets" the action of past officials. "The actions were wrong," he said.
Although many countries are cracking down on corrupt foreign practices, it is is unusual for firms to blow the whistle on themselves. Griffiths was applauded by the court for its co-operation, but what makes its case unique is that the firm agreed to share legally privileged communications with its two former law firms, which haven't yet been named publicly.
Griffiths provided investigating RCMP with extensive e-mail and other communications with its two law firms at the time.
The RCMP continues to probe the roles of a variety of players in the case, according to sources.
Griffiths Energy was founded in 2008 by brothers Naeem Tyab and Parvez Tyab and Brad Griffiths, a swashbuckling Bay Street deal-maker who died in a boating accident in 2011. From 2008 to 2010, the company's outside law firm was Heenan Blaikie. In early 2011, Griffiths Energy shifted its legal business to Calgary-based Macleod Dixon, which announced a merger agreement with Norton Rose in October, 2011.
Heenan Blaikie is a mid-sized corporate law firm that once boasted the late prime minister Pierre Trudeau as one of its lawyers and currently employs former prime minister Jean Chrétien. In the last decade the firm has promoted its mining expertise to expand into mineral-rich Africa. Leading the move to Africa was Montreal lawyer Jacques Bouchard Jr. who worked closely with Mr. Chrétien and was so deeply connected to so many of the continent's governments that he was named the honorary general counsel in Quebec for Angola.
Mr. Bouchard Jr., who left Heenan Blaikie in December 2011, confirmed in an interview that he was Griffiths Energy's lead lawyer in 2009 and 2010 when it was negotiating with Chad's Ministry of Petroleum to obtain rights to some of the country's lucrative oil properties. Mr. Bouchard said another Heenan Blaikie lawyer drafted the consulting contract with the the wife of Chad's Washington-based ambassador and said he had no knowledge of the $2-million payment she received in 2011.
"I was shocked," Mr. Bouchard said when he read about the $2-million payment in the media this week. "I'm telling you I don't know anything about it, I have never been to Chad. I never drafted the contract."
A spokeswoman for Heenan Blaikie did not respond to a request to comment.
A 13-page statement of facts agreed to by Griffiths Energy and Alberta's Crown Attorney and released this week did not name the two law firms that advised the Calgary-based company during its three-year quest to secure rights to develop oil and gas properties in Chad's southern oil fields. The statement identified one of the company's founders, Naeem Tyab, as the key point person who travelled to Chad in 2009 and 2010 with an unnamed lawyer to negotiate multimillion-dollar signing bonuses and a $2-million consulting agreement with a company owned by the wife of Mahamoud Adam Bechir, Chad's ambassador to the United States, Canada, Brazil, Argentina and Cuba.
Milos Barutciski, a lawyer representing Mr. Tyab, said his client acted on the advice of the company’s law firm, which he didn't name, when he negotiated the payment to the diplomat's wife. "Throughout these events Naeem Tyab and the company were acting under the advice of counsel."
Mr. Bouchard confirmed that Heenan Blaikie acted for Griffiths Energy during the period in question, but he reiterated that he did not know about the illegal payment. He said he was one of a handful of Heenan lawyers who advised Griffiths. The identities of the others could not be confirmed.
In early 2011, Griffiths Energy hired a small team of Calgary-based lawyers at Macleod Dixon led by Jay Park as its outside counsel. Norm Steinberg, global chairman of Norton Rose, confirmed that the Calgary office did transfer the $2-million payment to the Chadian ambassador's wife, but he said the lawyers thought they were paying a long-standing consultant.
"We had no knowledge that there were foreign public officials involved in the payment ... We were directed to make a payment to Chad Oil Consulting LLC that already had a consulting agreement with Griffiths." Chad Oil Consulting is a Nevada company owned by Nouracham Naim, wife of the Chadian ambassador.
Mr. Park could not be reached for comment.
After the new management took over, Gowling Lafleur Henderson LLP represented Griffiths Energy during the investigation into the company's Chad actions.
EDITOR'S NOTE: This story has been changed. An earlier version stated that an Agreed Statement of Fact in the Griffiths Energy International criminal prosecution asserted that an unnamed law firm advised Mr. Naeem Tyab, a GEI founder, about entering into a consulting agreement with Ambassador Mahamoud Adam Bechir's wife. In fact, the Agreed Statement of Fact states that in September 2009 the unnamed law firm advised Mr. Tyab that GEI could not make an offer or give an advantage or do anything directly or indirectly with Ambassador Bechir. Heenan Blaikie gave that advice and it thereafter provided no advice to Mr. Tyab with respect to the proposed agreement with the Ambassador.
Editor's note: An earlier online version of this story and the original newspaper version of this story gave an incorrect date for the merger of Macleod Dixon with Norton Rose. This online version has been corrected.