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Judge approves Griffiths Energy fine

CALGARY - Griffiths Energy International is eager to focus on drilling for oil Chad once again after a judge approved a $10.35-million fine for bribing the wife of a diplomat from the impoverished African country.

"We're glad to have this behind us and we're ready to move on with what we do best — oil and gas exploration and production," Griffiths CEO Gary Guidry told reporters Friday.

The privately held company, co-founded by the late businessman Brad Griffiths, pled guilty earlier this week to a charge under the Corruption of Public Foreign Officials Act.

Griffiths and the Crown agreed the $9-million fine, plus a 15 per cent victim fine surcharge, reflected the severity of the offence, which took place under the watch of the company's previous management team.

In approving the settlement, Justice Scott Brooker of Alberta's Court of Queen's Bench said the size of the bribe — $2 million, plus some Griffiths stock — was an aggravating factor.

It was much more substantial than the Toyota Land Cruiser and travel perks fellow Calgary oil and gas explorer Niko Resources Ltd. (TSX:NKO) doled out to Bangladeshi officials in 2005 that led to a $9.5-million fine in June 2011 — a case over which Brooker also presided.

But Brooker said there were "significant mitigating factors" in the Griffiths case.

He praised the company's management for acting "quickly and decisively" when it came across suspect consulting contracts — signed between Aug. 30, 2009 and Feb. 9, 2011 — in its preparations for an initial public offering.

According to an agreed statement of facts, a "consulting agreement" was signed by Naeem Tyab, on behalf of Griffiths, and a company owned by the Chadian ambassador, based in Washington.

The services covered in the contract were described as "advisory, logistics, operational and other assistance" regarding Griffith's energy projects in Chad.

A $2-million fee was to be payable to the ambassador's company if Griffiths was awarded two exploration blocks by a certain date, the statement of facts said.

The following month, lawyers advised Tyab that he shouldn't make that offer to a government official and the agreement was terminated. But another agreement with identical terms, was signed between Griffiths and a different company owned by the ambassador's wife, court heard.

There was no indication that the bribe actually led to any advantage for Griffiths.

The new Griffiths management team took over on July 1, 2011 — two weeks before Brad Griffiths died in a boating accident in Ontario's cottage country.

Guidry said Friday he knew something had to be done right away when management came across the bribes.

"My initial reaction was shock and my second reaction was that this needs to be investigated further," he said in the interview.

Almost immediately, the company launched an internal investigation, the results of which were handed over the Canadian and U.S. authorities.

"Conceivably, had they not done so, this crime might never have been discovered," Brooker told the court.

"Then, having reported the matter, Griffiths co-operated fully with the authorities, sharing the results of their investigation with the authorities, including Griffiths information and documents that the authorities were not otherwise entitled to."

The IPO has since been called off, causing Griffiths to write off $1.8 million in costs. The cost of the internal investigation is estimated to be $5 million.

Brooker said by blowing the whistle on itself, Griffiths saved law enforcement authorities a considerable amount of time and money.

He added Griffiths has showed "complete and genuine" remorse on behalf of its prior management, and has put in place safeguards to ensure this doesn't happen again.

"I am satisfied with the representations made to me that Griffiths has instituted an effective, comprehensive and robust anti-corruption program such that it is unlikely that there will be any repetition of such illegal conduct."

Griffiths lawyer Kristine Robidoux — whose firm led the internal investigation — called Griffiths "bold and courageous" for coming forward."

"We think this company really will serve as a model for companies in future that find themselves in a situation where ghosts are uncovered," she told reporters.

Insp. Greg Shields, with the RCMP's commercial crimes section, said U.S. companies have self-reported in the way that Griffiths has, but he's not aware of any others in Canada.

"I'm hoping if there are similar cases with other corporations that they will also come forward," he said, declining to confirm or deny whether charges are coming against the surviving members of Griffiths' prior management.

Guidry declined to provide details on the timing and mechanics of the company's IPO, other than to say going public is still part of the plan.

"Griffiths, from the inception, was designed to be public. Because these are big projects in remote locations in southern Chad, we need access to the large capital markets."

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