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The French banker at the centre of a Guinean mining scandal

AFP

FRANCE 24 has been looking into allegations that François Polge de Combret, a French banker and adviser to Guinean President Alpha Condé, was paid to use his influence to secure a major mining project for the Rio Tinto mining company.

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FRANCE 24 has new revelations about the man in the middle of a major international scandal in Guinea. François Polge de Combret, a French banker and adviser to Guinean President Alpha Condé, has been in the eye of the storm since revelations came to light of his role in the battle for the Simandou project, which involves one of the largest deposits of iron ore in the world.

For years, Simandou has been a magnet for mining companies and the subject of numerous corruption allegations. Over the past decade, mining interests eager to get their hands on this prime asset have fought a number of fierce battles – both in the media and in court – with the successive rulers of this poor West African country.

After his election in 2010, President Condé revoked the development rights to Simandou from BSGR, a company controlled by French-Israeli businessman Beny Steinmetz, accusing the firm of having obtained the rights through corruption. Steinmetz obtained them in 2008 under the ruling military dictatorship, beating out Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto. Rio Tinto was able to win back the rights under the new regime in 2011. But this agreement and several of its players are now in the crosshairs of the authorities of several Western countries. Combret is a central character in this saga.

In mid-November, following a report on the French investigative news website Mediapart, Rio Tinto admitted that it paid Combret a $10.5 million commission to obtain the rights to Simandou back in 2011. Following the revelations, the mining giant dismissed two top managers and alerted the US, British and Australian authorities. The Guinean president denied any wrongdoing and said he did not know that Combret, whom he met at university in Paris in the 1960s, worked for Rio Tinto.

The company claims to have discovered traces of the dubious payment last August during an internal investigation. The evidence was an exchange of emails between three top managers discussing paying Combret for services he provided in negotiating the contract for Simandou, thanks in part to his close relationship with President Condé. The contract was concluded in April 2011, a month before the exchange of emails. Rio Tinto has never revealed the nature nor the duration of its links with Combret.

According to documents newly obtained by FRANCE 24, the relationship between Rio Tinto and Combret seems to have continued until at least March of this year. An email dated March 15, 2016, and sent to Combret by Swiss banker Marc Brussard mentions a “letter from Rio Tinto that was received this morning”.

The email also discusses the closure of two accounts held by a Combret-controlled company at the Piguet Galland bank in Lausanne and the transfer of funds to a personal account. Brussard, assistant director at Piguet Galland, explains to Combret how he should proceed with the transfer. The mention of Rio Tinto’s letter suggests that there was a relationship, contractual or otherwise, between the mining giant and Combret.

Adding to the intrigue is the fact that the transfer involves a corporation based in a tax haven. Brussard advises Combret in the email on closing accounts held by SUFATOS, an entity whose owner and director is Combret. The banker explains that doing so requires filing a declaration with the United States since one of the accounts once held a balance of over 250,000 Swiss francs, over the asset threshold that requires a declaration to the US authorities. The relevant W8 form, a copy of which was obtained by FRANCE 24, reveals that SUFATOS, Ltd. is registered in the tax haven of the British Virgin Islands.

According to the British Virgin Islands records that we obtained, SUFATOS was created on January 4, 2011, two weeks after Condé was sworn in as president and three months before the conclusion of the Rio Tinto contract on Simandou for which Combret was paid the $10.5 million. SUFATOS was shut down on June 15, 2016, exactly three months after the email exchange between Combret and his banker that mentions the Rio Tinto letter.

SUFATOS’s declaration of insolvency from June 2016 mentions, in bold, that the names and signatures of its directors have been omitted. This is an unusual step and it is noted by the liquidation’s administrator, who writes that the declaration of insolvency is complete "with the exception of names and signatures of the directors".

The mailing address cited on both the British Virgin Islands records and the declaration to US authorities is in London, where Combret is a fiscal resident. The property – valued at over €4 million – is owned by yet another business based in a tax haven, according to the British property register.

The business that owns the property, Teleus Investment Ltd., is based in Jersey in the Channel Islands. According to available records, the shareholders in this business are themselves corporations based in Jersey.

All of these operations involving tax havens raise numerous questions. First among them, why did Combret decide to empty the SUFATOS accounts and then shut the company down? On March 17, 2016, two days after Brussard’s email mentioning the Rio Tinto letter, the mining firm announced the departure of its CEO Sam Walsh.

Walsh was one of the three managers who discussed the $10.5 million payment to Combret in the leaked email exchange. Rio Tinto’s letter to Combret’s banker Brussard would thus have been sent just before the announcement of his departure from the company. Was his resignation aimed at covering up the relationship between Combret and the mining giant? Who then decided to close his British Virgin Island business and its accounts?

Combret, who lives in Switzerland, declined to comment for this article, explaining that ongoing legal processes prevented him from doing so.

David Outhwaite, a spokesperson for Rio Tinto, told FRANCE 24 that the company had “absolutely no comment, it’s in the hands of regulators” in the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia.

In early December, FRANCE 24 published excerpts of recordings from 2012 suggesting that Combret intervened with the mining companies involved in Simandou as an emissary of the Guinean president. The claims have been denied by the Guinean authorities and were called “laughable” by president Condé during a visit to Paris this month, according to French weekly Jeune Afrique.

FRANCE 24 has no evidence suggesting that the president or any Guinean officials are tied to Combret’s financial dealings.

Links to a former French president

According to British Virgin Islands records, SUFATOS’s liquidator was May de Lasteyrie du Saillant, Combret’s wife, who is also the niece of former French president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. Combret was an adviser to Giscard d'Estaing when he was the minister of finance in the early 1970s before following him to the Elysée Palace in 1974.

Combret served first as his adviser on economic and industrial affairs before becoming deputy chief of staff from 1978 to 1981. After Giscard d'Estaing lost to François Mitterrand in 1981, Combret worked for the Lazard Bank, where he was a partner for 20 years. After his departure in 2005, he spent three years with Swiss bank UBS and then a year at French bank Crédit Agricole before creating his own consulting firm, FC Finances.

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