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It was contained in a single paragraph, an adjunct to a quarterly exploration report, the kind of document pored over by financial analysts and geologists. They rarely generate too much excitement in these days of continuous disclosure. But yesterday's third-quarter exploration and production report from BHP Billiton contained a bombshell.
The company was co-operating with the US Securities and Exchange Commission over possible breaches of anti-graft laws.
And that was about it. No indication of who was involved or where, except that it wasn't in China and had nothing to do with the marketing of BHP product. But if the world's biggest miner hoped that tantalising titbit would satisfy the curious minds of investors and the media, coming hard on the heels of the agonising trial and jailing of Rio Tinto's iron ore marketing team in Shanghai, it was very much mistaken.
By clamming up, all it has done is excite interest in the matter and deliver an impression that the company has something to hide. The investigations surround two exploration projects that never made it into production, both of which have attracted heavy criticism from non-government organisations at the company's annual meetings in and last year. One is a bauxite prospect in Cambodia and the other a nickel and cobalt prospect in the southern Philippine province of Surigao del Norte.
The Herald understands that Tom Harley, the man who was subjected to a damning character assessment by Justice Terence Cole at the royal commission on the AWB oil-for-food scandal, is understood to have played a key role in the company's involvement with the two projects. Harley left BHP Billiton in mid and now fronts a boutique advisory business in Melbourne called Dragoman along with another former BHP executive, John Fast.
Oxford-educated and a regular at the Melbourne Club, Harley is considered a well-connected political player in the business world. The great grandson of Alfred Deakin, a founding father of Federation and Australia's second prime minister, Harley was front and centre of some of the Big Australian's greatest adventures during his 24 years at the firm. He joined in as an assistant to the company secretary, shortly after the Perth entrepreneur Robert Holmes a Court staged his raid on the company through Wigmores, later to become Bell Resources.
But it was his role in the AWB scandal that brought him to public prominence and the part he played in a ''donation'' of wheat to the Iraqi regime at a time when the company was interested in a huge petroleum deposit in the country.
The apparent humanitarian gesture came under scrutiny when questions were raised as to whether it was, in fact, a sanctions-busting arrangement, given the expectation it be repaid - with interest. Justice Cole rejected Harley's evidence that the shipment was a gift and that he had told colleagues it was a gift.
While the company provided public support for its executive, the damning character assessment made his position untenable. As the recent court case against Rio Tinto's iron ore team has illustrated, conducting business in regimes with less stringent legal systems can prove difficult. In China, it is common practice for multinational firms to engage ''consultants'' whose job it is to facilitate business meetings with government officials and local businesses.
The consultants are paid handsomely for their services and some of that money often finds its way into the hands of other officials. The idea is that the transactions are at arm's length and that if the proverbial hits the fan, none of it will be sprayed back on to the source of the cash. That is the reality of doing business in developing countries and precious few Western companies could be considered innocent of this kind of behaviour.
While it may be explained in terms of custom, gifts or donations, in more developed countries it is seen as graft. It remains to be seen just what kind of impact these revelations will have on European Union regulators who are looking at ways to stymie BHP and Rio Tinto's planned joint venture at their Pilbara iron ore operations. There have been noises recently that internal negotiations over the joint venture are not travelling well. That has created rumblings from within Rio's shareholder base, who last year jacked up over the board's and management's ill-fated plan to sell a large stake in the company to the Chinese government-owned company Chinalco.
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