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US: Ex-Willbros official who sought Nigeria contract is indicted

by David Ivanovich Houston Chronicle
July 23rd, 2007

A federal grand jury in Houston has charged a former executive of a Willbros Group subsidiary with conspiring to bribe Nigerian officials as part of an alleged scheme to win a major natural gas pipeline contract.

Jason Edward Steph of Sunset is accused of conspiring to funnel more than $6 million in bribes to Nigerian officials to help land - and then keep - engineering, procurement and pipeline construction work with a joint venture controlled by Nigeria's state-owned oil company.

Steph, 37, who has been living in Kazakhstan, was arrested near Dallas, Justice Department spokesman Bryan Sierra said.

The four-count indictment unsealed Monday accused Steph of conspiring to violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, money laundering and conspiracy to commit money laundering.

Steph worked from 1998 until April 2005 for Willbros International, a subsidiary of Willbros Group, which provides construction, engineering and other services for the oil and gas industry, the Justice Department said in a statement.

Willbros is headquartered in Panama City, Panama, but maintains administrative offices in Houston.

 From 2002 until leaving the company, Steph served as Willbros International's general manager for onshore operations in Nigeria.

Willbros International, together with a German partner, was bidding on a natural gas pipeline project in the Niger Delta known as the Eastern Gas Gathering System.

To help ensure its $387 million bid would be a winner, according to the indictment, Steph - together with a former Willbros executive based in Houston, two Nigerian consultants and others - allegedly schemed to dole out cash to officials from Nigeria's national oil company, the Nigerian government, and a political party and other players.

Detailing the allegation
The Justice Department contends most of the money was laundered through the consultants, who typically received 3 percent of Willbros' contract revenue in exchange.

The indictment alleges that Steph and Jim Bob "J.B." Brown, a former managing director for Willbros International in Nigeria, became concerned that the company's failure to continue making payments would dampen Willbros' prospects for winning a second phase of the project valued at $141 million.

According to the indictment, Steph and Brown then obtained money from outside sources to continue making improper payments.

Previous guilty plea

Last year, Brown pleaded guilty to taking part in bribery schemes in Nigeria and Ecuador.

If convicted, Steph faces a maximum 65 years in prison and fines of up to $1.8 million or twice the amount allegedly involved, whichever is greater.

A spokesman for Willbros Group declined to discuss the case. Steph could not be reached for comment.

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