Aula di tribunale

The Milan court case: story of an acquittal

The proceedings relating to the OPL 245 affair have come to a close.

As previously mentioned, on 19 July 2022 the Assistant Attorney General Celestina Gravina brought the legal proceedings relating to OPL 245 to a close by waiving the possibility to appeal against the Court’s decision of 17 March 2021.

The Assistant Attorney General’s waiving of the possibility to appeal means that the acquittals of Eni and its managers already handed down last March have become definitive judgements under Italian law.

In the following section, we will provide the main judicial proceedings in the Milan trial to those who are interested, as performed with all the documentation filed on the OPL 245 case.

At Eni’s request in 2014, the American law firm Pepper Hamilton LLP – specializing in anti-corruption matters – and an American forensic investigation company reviewed the procedure followed, the negotiations conducted, as well as the contract signed for the acquisition of OPL 245. Both investigations were completed in 2015 and confirmed the operation was legal.

However, in December 2017  five of Eni’s top managers, two of whom are no longer in charge, were committed for trial. The trial began on 5 May 2018 and is still in progress before the Court of Milan. At the hearing, the defence and Eni’s expert witnesses demonstrated that the company operated with fairness in its acquisition of OPL 245.

Below are some of the final steps of the legal proceedings before the Court of Milan:

  • 30 January 2020: The prosecution case against Shell and Eni is substantially based on statements made by the defendant Vincenzo Armanna, a former Eni manager dismissed in 2013 following a dispute over expense claims. Armanna claimed that $50 million in kickbacks had been paid to Eni senior managers, as reported to him by Nigerian intelligence officer Victor Nwafor. Summoned as a witness in court, the latter flatly denied Armanna’s claim. Armanna then asked to call a “second Victor”, but the judges rejected his request. Supported by the public prosecutor, Armanna then returned to the fray with a “third Victor”, whom he identified as his true source. The Court heard this witness’s evidence on 30 January, 2020. However, the “third Victor” (whose real name is Isaac Eke) also denied Armanna’s claims. At the same hearing, it was also found that Armanna had lied about the number of passports available to him (he had three, not one, valid over the period concerned) for the purpose of making it difficult to trace his trips to Nigeria. Also at the hearing of 30 January, 2020, Salvatore Castilletti, the former head of the AISE [External Intelligence and Security Agency] in Abuja, cited by Armanna as a person informed about the facts, denied he had ever been aware of the OPL 245 operation.
  • 6 February 2020: The Court rejected as irrelevant the Public Prosecutor’s in extremis attempt to summon Piero Amara, Eni’s former external legal affairs advisor, a prior offender and under investigation in another case. The prosecution had taken up Armanna’s allegations that Amara was able to provide information on purported attempts to influence the Court in the current proceedings.
  • 22 May 2020: the High Court of Justice in London, UK, denied its jurisdiction over the OPL 245 case and rejected the lawsuit filed by the Federal Government of Nigeria. The Italian courts therefore remained the sole authorities in charge of the claim.

The prospecting licence for Block 245 expired in 2021 and the Nigerian Federal Government has not yet converted its prospecting licence into an oil mining lease (OLM). Not a single oil barrel has been drilled to date.

On 17 March 2021, after almost three years of legal proceedings, the Court of Milan acquitted Eni, its chief executive Claudio Descalzi and the management team involved in the Nigeria-OPL 245 affair on every count on the grounds that the case was unfounded. 

On 29 July, 2021, Fabio De Pasquale, Deputy Public Prosecutor for Milan, lodged an appeal against the acquittal verdict handed down by the Milan Court on 17 March, 2021. An appeal was also lodged by the plaintiff in the case, the Federal Government of Nigeria, represented by Counsel Lucio Lucia. 

Eni reiterates its total non-involvement in the disputed matters and is confident that the appeal court will quickly confirm the findings of the earlier court case.  

As previously reported, the matters in dispute were fully investigated as part of the proceedings relating to the role of intermediaries.

This being the case, on 2 November, 2021, the Public Prosecutor’s Office rejected the application for an appeal to the Court of Cassation made by Nigeria against the acquittal of Emeka Obi and Gianluca Di Nardo, thus definitively confirming that there was no case to answer in respect of the criminal acts that Eni and its managers were alleged to have committed. The Court in fact stated that “there is no doubt that the Eni managers, and the intermediaries, were not involved in behaviour typical of the crime of corruption”.

The conclusion of the affair came on 19 July 2022, when – before the second division of the Milan Appeal Court, the Assistant Attorney General – Celestina Gravina – waived the appeal against the Court’s decision, thus concluding the criminal legal proceedings relating to OPL 245.

In addition to the Italian case, which ended with the full acquittal of Eni and its managers, the OPL 245 affair was - for some specific matters which do not directly concern the company or its managers – subject to the decisions of various international courts.

In particular, on June 14, 2022, the London High Court ruled in favor of JP Morgan in the lawsuit brought by the Nigerian government, which in February 2022 had requested compensation of $ 1.7 billion for the role played by the credit institution in the agreement on OPL 245.

According to the Abuja government, JP Morgan engaged in "grossly negligent" conduct in carrying out transactions related to the block acquisition process - in particular, the transfer of funds from the escrow account to former Minister Dan Etete - JP Morgan. In fact, in the High Court ruling (see the section below) judge Sara Cockerill  did not find sufficient evidence that the Nigerian government had been defrauded in the 2011 oil deal. Consequently, there had been no violation of the cd. Quincecare's obligation, an obligation which binds banks - in this case JP Morgan - to ignore a client's instructions when these are likely to represent an attempt of fraud against the same client.

Finally, on June 16, 2022 the Federal High Court of Nigeria "in the Abuja Division" ruled on another proceeding initiated by the Nigerian government against those who - according to the indictment - were considered the "intermediaries" of the alleged OPL 245 bribe, Emeka Obi and Gianluca Di Nardo. The proceeding promoted by Abuja was aimed at obtaining, as a matter of urgency, the seizure of the sums deposited by the subjects in current accounts opened in Swiss banks, seizure requested and obtained by the Milan Public Prosecutor's Office as part of the OPL 245 proceedings.

These are the sums that the Milan Court of Appeal had ordered to be released and returned after the acquittal sentence - which has become final - from the international corruption charges made against Obi and Di Nardo on November 2, 2021. The High Court of Abuja highlighted two aspects, one formal and one of merit. First, the Federal High Court established its lack of jurisdiction, as it is a legal action on assets (in particular bank funds) that are located in Swiss banks, therefore outside Nigeria.

Entering into the merits of the matter, the Court ruled out that there is evidence of an illicit origin of the funds. “I cannot see”- claims the Abuja Court on p. 43 of the judgment available below – “any facts supporting the assertion that the monies are reasonably suspected to be proceeds of unlawful activities," also in light of the acquittal by the Milan Court of Appeal of Obi and Di Nardo. A fact, the latter, not mentioned by the Nigerian Republic in its appeal.