Sunday, April 18, 2021

Turkish Aksa Energy linked to Ghana bribery allegations


One of Turkey’s largest power producers is embroiled in allegations of corruption over a deal in Ghana brokered by a Goldman Sachs banker.

Aksa Energy, which is publicly listed on the Istanbul stock exchange, is the unnamed energy company that appears in a recent complaint filed by the US Securities and Exchange Commission, said two people familiar with the situation.

The company allegedly funnelled about $2.5m in bribes to Ghanaian officials before it was awarded the contract to build an electricity plant in the west African nation. It is also alleged that it paid $2m to Asante Berko, then an executive director in Goldman’s London office, for his alleged role in orchestrating the bribery scheme, which was thrashed out in 2015 and 2016.

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Although Aksa Energy is not named in the SEC filing, and is not specified as a target of its complaint, the document provides a number of details that identify it as the energy company that is referred to throughout the document.

This was confirmed by two people familiar with the US regulator’s investigation. Aksa was also publicly named by John Jinapor, who was Ghana’s deputy power minister at the time, in a local radio interview last week. He denied any direct involvement in the deal.

Aksa was pursuing the business in Ghana at a time when it was struggling with tight profit margins, a squeeze on energy prices and a slide in the lira. This environment piled pressure on Turkish energy producers such as Aksa that were laden with foreign currency debt. It comes as the issue of Turkey’s corporate debt burden is back in focus as the coronavirus crisis has pushed the lira close to an all-time low in recent weeks.

The case is uncomfortable for Goldman Sachs, which is still awaiting the outcome of a US investigation into whether the bank has a case to answer in the multibillion-dollar 1MDB embezzlement and bribery case in Malaysia. One of its former senior bankers has already pleaded guilty to involvement in the case.

The SEC said there were no charges against Mr Berko’s former employer. Goldman Sachs was not named in the complaint but several sources confirmed the US bank was the entity that had employed Mr Berko at the time.

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The regulator said Mr Berko took “deliberate measures” to prevent his employers from discovering the alleged Ghanaian bribery scheme. Goldman’s compliance team uncovered questions about the deal and, by August 2016, the bank had terminated its involvement in the power project. Mr Berko resigned a few months later.

However, the Financial Times can reveal that Goldman continued to own a 16.6 per cent stake in Aksa Energy, which it acquired as part of a financing deal with its parent company that was struck in 2012 and extended the following year. The stake was bought back by the parent company, Kazanci Holding, in 2018 for $300m — almost three times its market value — thanks to a put option that was agreed six years earlier.

Goldman declined to comment. A person familiar with the situation said the firm did not have information about any broader alleged wrongdoing involving Mr Berko and the energy company, beyond the information that it had in 2016, until the SEC’s complaint became public last week.

According to the SEC filing, the origins of the power plant deal date back to 2014, when Ghana was suffering from severe power shortages that led to rationing and a contraction of the manufacturing and mining sectors. In response, the government fast-tracked private power projects.

At the time of the deal, Goldman and Aksa Energy were looking for opportunities to develop their businesses in Africa. Shortly afterwards, a more senior banker at the London office told Mr Berko that Aksa Energy, a long time client, wanted to build and operate an electricity plant in Ghana and sell the power to the country’s government. They agreed that Goldman would advise Aksa and arrange financing if the deal was successful.

Mr Berko enlisted the help of a Ghanaian intermediary firm that had contacts “within the highest levels” of government and together they allegedly came up with a plan in which Aksa Energy agreed to make payments totalling several million dollars as the deal cleared various hurdles, according to the SEC filing.

The deal was announced in August 2015, and the power plant began commercial operations in 2017.

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Last week, Mr Berko resigned as managing director of the Ghana state-owned Tema Oil Refinery, according to a government statement.

Mr Berko denied any wrongdoing in a statement shared with local media, and said that a Turkish power producer agreed to pay him $2m for his work raising $150m for the project. He said the SEC allegations had “come as a complete surprise” to him.

Aksa Energy did not respond to a request for comment.

Original article on FT


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