September 4, 2006

Water project trial targets Italian giant

One of the world's largest construction companies, Impregilo, takes the dock in Lesotho, charged with five counts of bribery involving millions of rands in connection with the Highlands water project. Impregilo is the last remaining company to be charged in Lesotho's "clean hands" operation, following Maseru's discovery that huge foreign bribes were paid to the project's former CE, Masupha Sole. Several companies have been convicted on similar charges and fines of R37,5m have been paid. Sole is serving 15 years in jail.
Impregilo, registered in Milan, is the result of a merger involving a company also named Impregilo and Cogefar-Impresit Costruzioni Generali in 1994. According to the charge sheet, in October 1990 an employee of the old Impregilo, who stayed on after the merger to work for the new company, made a "consultancy agreement" with Jacobus du Plooy, a South African listed as a witness for the prosecution. The prosecution claims this agreement was a bribery arrangement. A number of other allegations are made to substantiate the claim that Cogefar and the "new" Impregilo must have been aware of what was going on in relation to bribery and yet "recklessly associated itself" with those acts. After the merger, the new company tried to cover up the agreement with Sole and the payments made to him. This they did in a number of ways, says the prosecution, including trying to prevent the authorities in Lesotho from obtaining the Swiss bank records which would have shown the payments made to Sole.
Although the company has not yet been asked to plead, it has always maintained in press statements that it was not guilty. However, members of the investigation team say they were confident that they would win this case, as they have the others they have brought to court in relation to the Highlands Water Project corruption. The case is of the utmost importance for Impregilo because it is concerned to defend its reputation in connection with a massive project in Europe - the building of the world's longest single-span suspension bridge: Impregilo is a lead partner in the construction of the 3,3km bridge across the Strait of Messina, in Sicily. (Business Day, Johannesburg)

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