- The Washington Times - Friday, August 6, 2004

The Securities and Exchange Commission is examining payments by four big U.S. oil companies to officials of Equatorial Guinea and businesses they controlled, as government inquiries related to the Riggs Bank affair expand.

Spokesmen for the companies — Amerada Hess, ChevronTexaco, Exxon Mobil and Marathon — confirmed yesterday that they had recently received letters from the SEC requesting information in a preliminary investigation. They said the companies were cooperating in the inquiry, which is being conducted by the SEC’s office in Fort Worth, Texas.

SEC spokesman Matt Well in Washington declined comment.

At issue is whether U.S. anti-bribery laws were violated in the companies’ activities in Equatorial Guinea, a poor West African country cited by the State Department for human rights abuses, corruption and diversion of oil revenues to government officials.

In the course of an overall investigation of account transactions at Riggs, Senate investigators discovered large payments made by the oil companies to officials of Equatorial Guinea and their relatives. That raised concerns about possible corruption, voiced by senators at a hearing last month.

Executives defended the companies’ actions in Equatorial Guinea, testifying that they have strictly complied with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and have entered only into legitimate business ventures there.

Spokesmen for Amerada Hess, ChevronTexaco and Marathon reiterated that position yesterday.

Exxon Mobil spokeswoman Susan Reeves would say only that the company received the request from the SEC on Thursday and planned “to cooperate fully.”

The SEC inquiry concerning the four oil companies and Equatorial Guinea is preliminary and not formal and the companies’ furnishing of information is voluntary.

News of the inquiry, first reported Thursday by The Washington Post, comes about a week after the disclosure that the Justice Department is investigating the federal regulator who oversaw Riggs during a period of deficient money-laundering controls and later became a senior executive at the bank.

The ethics investigation of R. Ashley Lee was triggered by a referral of the matter on July 20 by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency — where Mr. Lee was the lead examiner for Riggs — to the Justice Department. Inquiries into activities of current or former federal employees by Justice’s Office of Professional Responsibility can develop into criminal investigations.

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