Gunvor: unprecedented conviction in corruption case

After an eight-year-long investigation, the Office of the Attorney General of Switzerland (OAG) has found Gunvor guilty of organisation failures in connection with corruption in oil markets in Congo-Brazzaville and Ivory Coast. As part of this conviction, the Geneva trading company will have to pay a 4 million franc fine as well as 90 million francs of compensation amount (créance compensatrice). Public Eye regrets that, up to now, the Swiss prosecuting authorities have not been able to go up the entire accountability ladder and prosecute the company’s senior executives.

In an exclusive investigation, published in 2017, Public Eye already highlighted Gunvor's dubious practices in the Congo and documented the ramifications of this sprawling affair.

In its judgment, the Office of the Attorney General of Switzerland (OAG) found Gunvor guilty of not having taken all reasonable and necessary organisational measures (Art. 102 of the Swiss Criminal Code) to prevent the corruption of foreign public officials in relation to the oil markets of the Republic of Congo and Ivory Coast. The trader has been found guilty of “serious deficiencies in its internal organisation”. Neither had it implemented due diligence procedures. “It thus appears that the risk of corruption was accepted by Gunvor and was inherent to the commercial activity of the company,” according to the statement by the OAG.

This decision invalidates Gunvor’s line of defence, which has argued from the start of the proceedings that they have been the victim of a dishonest employee having acted without the company’s knowledge and to the company’s detriment.

Gunvor’s CEO, Torbjörn Törnqvist, founder and 64% shareholder of the group, as well as senior executives of the company are getting away with it. Their troubled role in this case was established when the former business developer of the company was convicted in August 2018.

The latter admitted the facts in return for a more lenient sentence.

In the indictment, validated by the Federal Criminal Court of Bellinzona, it was emphasised that the employee had been “immersed in a working atmosphere where corruption was apparently an accepted business practice”, and that the payments had been endorsed by “other Gunvor employees”, as well as being validated by the finance department.

The indictment also stated that Torbjörn Törnqvist had been informed by e-mail of the fact that Maxime Gandzion – one of the Congolese public officials having received a 15-million-dollar commission – was part of the “circle of five people with power to influence decision-making in the Congo”. In 2015, Gunvor’s boss had been questioned in Berne as a “person required to provide information”. According to Public Eye’s information, he had described to the prosecutor, Mr Sautebin, the activities of Maxime Gandzion, explaining that the latter was very closely connected to the Congolese president, who used Gandzion to “transmit his messages, expectations and hopes” to Gunvor. He acknowledged having “approved” this intermediary agent who did not show, according to Törnqvist, any particular red flag.

Other aspects of the procedure are still under investigation. Gunvor’s former head of financing is still being investigated for corruption. In 2014, he had unknowingly been filmed describing the workarounds enabling the remuneration of Congolese officials.

The Gunvor case, investigated over an eight-year period, proves that the top management of trading companies remains untouchable. Despite the existence of incriminating documents and overwhelming evidence, establishing proof of corruption remains a formidable challenge for the Swiss authorities.

This case is a typical illustration of the Swiss commodity-trading sector business model, and as such, it calls for a political response. It highlights that the arguments put forward by trading companies to oppose any regulation do not stand up to the scrutiny of their practices. The Federal authorities can no longer rely on the good will of companies. They must now regulate this high-risk sector, as demanded by Public Eye in a recent report.

More information on “Gunvor’s Adventures in the Congo” here or contacting:

Adrià Budry Carbó, investigator, commodities, +41(0)787386448

Anne Fishman, policy analyst, commodities and finance, +41(0) 21 620 0616

Legal disclaimer
This version is a translation of a text which was written in French. This translation is made available for reference purposes only. In case of discrepancy between the different versions, the original French text will prevail. Public Eye will not be held liable for any damage on account of errors, inaccuracies or misunderstandings stemming from this translation.