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Niko Resources, a Calgary-based oil and gas company, has pleaded guilty to bribing a Bangladeshi minister with a luxury SUV and a trip to New York and Calgary, and will pay a $9.5-million fine.

The Alberta Court of Queen's bench on Friday afternoon approved the fine, saying it is a "sufficiently harsh penalty to provide satisfactory denouncement and deterrence."

Niko's conduct is "an embarrassment to all Canadians" and "a dark stain on Calgary's proud reputation as the energy capital of Canada," said Justice Scott Brooker.

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"This sentence should send a message to Canadian business that the penalty for violation will be severe," assistant Crown attorney Steven Johnston said earlier.

According to an agreed statement of facts in the case, the Canadian High Commission in Bangladesh became concerned after press reports surfaced that Niko had provided the luxury car to a Bangladeshi minister.

Canada's high commissioner at the time, David Sproule, questioned Qasim Sharif, an official working for Niko's Bangladeshi subsidiary, about the gift.

According to Mr. Sproule, Mr. Sharif dismissed the diplomat's concerns, saying, "These things are done all the time" and "they give these sorts of things in these situations."

According to the statement of facts, Niko kept a close eye on money flowing to Bangladesh. Mr. Sharif, the company's Bangladesh country agent, said he personally told Niko chief executive Ed Sampson that he had delivered the Land Cruiser to Mr. Hossain, the energy minister. Mr. Sampson has denied that.

In a letter sent to the minister's office when the vehicle was delivered, Niko vice-president Brian Adolph wrote: "I take this opportunity on behalf of Niko management to thank you all for the support you have given us in the past and hope to receive the same in coming days."

There is no evidence that Niko benefited from either bribe, Mr. Johnston told the court Friday. He stressed that the company co-operated with the RCMP's investigation, a probe that cost nearly $900,000.

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The fine was the subject of much discussion between lawyers for the company and the Crown's office, Mr. Johnston said. "Had the company not been co-operative, it's entirely possible that the punishment would have been much more punitive."

As part of the plea deal, Niko will be placed on three years probation.

Alexander Pringle, a lawyer for Niko, said that the company has "taken extensive steps to rectify their corporate culture to make sure this won't happen again." He highlighted the difficulty of working in foreign countries with different cultures.

Mr. Pringle acknowledged that the case law on fining corporations is consistent. "Large successful organizations require larger fines for more deterrence," he said.

Kristine Robidoux, another Niko lawyer, said that when the company learned it was under investigation, it provided the RCMP "unfettered access" to electronic data and documents.

The Globe and Mail reported Friday that Niko would admit in court that it bribed a Bangladeshi minister after explosions from one of the company's natural gas fields sparked protests in a nearby village and complaints of environmental contamination.

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The plea agreement is the first of its kind under a new RCMP initiative to combat foreign bribery.

Niko, which has oil and gas exploration projects scattered around the developing world in countries such as Indonesia and Iraq, has skyrocketed on the stock market since it debuted as a junior on the Alberta Stock Exchange in 1987. Its CEO, Ed Sampson, was the highest compensated CEO last year - earning more than $16-million, the bulk of which was in stock options - according to a survey of executive pay by The Globe and Mail's Report on Business.

For several years, a team of RCMP officers, known as the force's international anti-corruption unit, has been probing the company, after the arrests of several Bangladeshi politicians on corruption charges by authorities in Dhaka.

The Mounties' case against Niko centred around alleged gifts for a junior energy minister in Bangladesh, A.K.M. Mosharraf Hossain.

In 2005, at a time when Mr. Hossain was responsible for assessing what compensation Niko should provide to villagers after explosions at one of the company's drilling sites, a new Toyota Land Cruiser, purchased by Niko, was delivered to his house. At the time, Niko said that it had provided the luxury SUV to its partner in Bangladesh, the state-owned gas company known as BAPEX, and denied having any knowledge about the vehicle's ultimate destination.

A trip to New York taken by Mr. Hossain and his family is also central to the RCMP's case.

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The 2005 explosion, which took place near a rural village called Tengratila, was a public relations disaster. The company provided a total of $525,000 (U.S.) in cash payments to locals, who complained of contaminated drinking water and devastated agriculture, as well as $100,000 in services to the surrounding villages. The company's offers did not placate the Bangladeshi government, which entered into a protracted dispute with Niko over the price of the gas it had yet to uncover.

No individuals from the company have been charged. In a statement, it said that its board of directors audit committee voted to enter the guilty plea. The plea "is expected to resolve all matters investigated by the RCMP in relation to Niko's activities," the statement said. A joint-sentencing submission will be made by an assistant Crown attorney and lawyers for the company at a hearing Friday at Alberta's Court of Queen's Bench in Calgary.

With files from Nathan VanderKlippe

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