Key fixer at Michael Howard oil firm 'investigated over Libya deal'

Middle man probed in US in connection with alleged bribes paid in a previous job to invest energy proceeds

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A key director at the controversial oil company chaired by the former Conservative party leader Lord Howard is being investigated for corruption, reports claimed yesterday.

The Wall Street Journal yesterday claimed that Mohamad Ali Ajami, a director of the London-based Soma Oil & Gas, is being investigated by the US Securities and Exchange Commission and the Justice Department.

The newspaper said the authorities were examining whether Mr Ajami made payments constituting bribes to persuade the Gaddafi-era Libyan Investment Authority to invest $300m (£190m) of the country’s oil money with the hedge fund Och-Ziff.

The inquiry is only in its early stages and it should be stressed that the investigators have not concluded there has been any wrongdoing by Mr Ajami. The probe is unconnected with his later role at Soma.

Soma has already been the subject of  questions from some non-governmental organisations (NGOs) over its winning of the rights to run seismic tests in the recently war-torn Somalia.

Mr Ajami is a director and major shareholder in Soma. He successfully persuaded a Russian billionaire to invest $50m in the company early this year to fund its seismic tests.

In return for this introduction and other services, Soma paid Mr Ajami’s vehicle, AfroEast, 1.5 million shares worth potentially $1.5m. The Russian tycoon Alexander Dzhaparidze also paid him, with 12.5 million Soma warrants, worth $12.5m.

In the Libyan deal under investigation, Mr Ajami, who did not respond to requests for comment, is alleged to have given some of the fee he received from Och-Ziff to another intermediary close to Gaddafi’s son, Saif, and Mustafa Zarti, then number two at the Libyan Investment Authority.  

Och-Ziff has stressed it was not aware that any money was paid to anyone other than Mr Ajami’s firm, The Wall Street Journal reported.

Och-Ziff’s London arm was led at the time by the multimillionaire Michael Cohen. It was his division that is thought to have arranged the hedge fund’s African investments, which also included an Ajami -led property company operating in Libya.

The Independent has previously reported how this company, called Magna, fared badly and lost money for its investors, who included the Conservative businessman Wafic Said. One Magna director was the Conservative peer and Lady Thatcher’s adviser, Lord Powell. Mr Ajami’s nephew, who was working on the projects, was subsequently found guilty of corruption and sentenced to eight years in prison, The Wall Street Journal  said.

Sources close to Lord Powell yesterday said that he and Lord Howard had never discussed Mr Ajami, despite being in regular contact with each other. Lord Powell was unaware that the middleman was working with Lord Howard.

A Soma spokesman said: “Soma undertook the standard due diligence at the time he [Ajami] joined the board and found nothing of concern.”

Mr Ajami joined Soma in December 2013.

Accounts for the company show that Soma is committed to issuing him with a further  10 million shares in the group in return for a $10m investment from him by the end of this month. The accounts say that, without Mr Ajami’s $10m, it will have to scale back its operational expenditure or find alternative sources of funding.

Global Witness, the anti-corruption NGO, has expressed concerns about Soma getting involved in projects in Somalia at a time when the country does not have a framework in place dictating how the country’s oil revenues should be divided around the country. The UN has called for a moratorium on oil deals.

Global Witness’s  Barnaby Pace said of the inquiry into Mr Ajami: “This news adds even more controversy to Soma Oil and Gas and their oil deal in Somalia.”

Mr Ajami, 60, is an established middleman in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia. He has extensive contacts in business and politics in the regions where he operates, making him a key “fixer” in those areas.