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Yemengate

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In response to the lawsuit, Hunt Oil vigorously denied all of the allegations, and described its dealings in Yemen as a straight-up business deal. The company said it received no inside information from Abdulhak or anyone else in the Arabian Shield camp.

Jim Oberwetter of Hunt Oil now calls El-Khalidi's allegations "garbage. They are as old as Methuselah and just as dead."

During the lawsuit, Arabian Shield was able to obtain copies of Hunt Oil documents that El-Khalidi says bolster his claims.

First and foremost, he claims, is the involvement of another man, Moujib Al-Malazi, in Hunt's quest for the oil. Al-Malazi, the documents show, was the one who tipped Hunt Oil off to the possibility of a deal in Yemen and helped negotiate with the government.

Ray Hunt, in a sworn deposition, described Al-Malazi's role as that of a "facilitator" in the negotiations with Yemeni officials.

But Arabian Shield contended that Al-Malazi obtained his information about the Ma'rib field, and Arabian Shield's proposal, from double agent Abdulhak.

"[Hunt Oil] knowingly and intentionally subverted [Arabian Shield's] business agent in the Yemen Arab Republic and, through him, obtained copies of Arabian Shield's proprietary geological information," the lawsuit argued.

Al-Malazi also became the funnel for bribes that Hunt Oil paid to win the Yemeni contract, Arabian Shield's lawyers claimed. After Hunt won the contract, a Panamanian company set up by Al-Malazi and his family received a $100,000 fee from Hunt Oil, according to company documents and depositions of company officials.

Al-Malazi's company was also promised one percent of Hunt's profits from the oil deal, and El-Khalidi claims the payments began before Hunt actually struck oil.

Al-Malazi did not return a phone message left by the Observer at his London office.

In its responses to the Arabian Shield lawsuit, Hunt Oil denied using Al-Malazi as a conduit for bribes. When he was deposed, Ray Hunt said the company's arrangement with Al-Malazi was a simple business deal, paying Al-Malazi for his work, which Hunt personally approved. "I was told that he [Al-Malazi] was a world-class geophysicist, a very competent person, and an honest person," Hunt said.

Hunt Oil documents produced during the lawsuit make clear that the company was aware that bribery was a common practice in Yemen.

In January 1981, Hunt Oil Senior Vice President Thomas Meurer and others were dispatched to check out the prospects in Yemen. In a report written upon his return, Meurer noted that in Yemen "bribes (bakeesh) are a customary way of doing business. One businessman told me that we should plan on 10 percent to 15 percent of your contract for bakeesh."

In his deposition, Meurer said he was simply summing up what he had heard about street-level bribery in Yemen, for instance, "if you wanted to get stuff into Customs."

Although he thinks the Hunt documents and statements build a case against Hunt Oil, El-Khalidi concedes that he has never found the "smoking gun"--definitive proof that the company did anything illegal.

The lawsuit was ultimately dismissed in 1988 when a judge ruled that the statute of limitations had expired before the case was filed. Arabian Shield then filed a complaint with the U.S. Justice Department under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, charging that Hunt Oil had violated U.S. law by cheating in international trade. The complaint was filed in 1991, and the Justice Department has taken no apparent action on it. Oberwetter says he is not even aware that a complaint was filed.

Even the outcome of the lawsuit produced new controversy. As part of its legal brief asking that the case be dismissed, Hunt Oil included sworn affidavits from numerous players in the drama, attesting that nothing untoward had been done.

Two of the affidavits contained the supposed signature of Ali Al-Bahr, the Yemeni official who signed the oil agreement with Hunt, and one of them purported to explain why the Yemeni government had chosen Hunt Oil over Arabian Shield. But the signatures might have been forgeries.

Two independent experts hired by Arabian Shield--one retired U.S. Secret Service examiner and one Arabian handwriting expert who worked for the government of Jordan--both studied the signatures and concluded they were fakes.

(Frank Finn, the lead attorney who represented Hunt Oil in the case, did not return Observer phone calls. In 1991, another Hunt Oil attorney told D Magazine freelance writer Tom Curtis that the signatures on the affidavits did "look different" than the minister's real signature, but said the issue was of little importance.)

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David Pasztor

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