It was supposed to be the deal that launched Beny Steinmetz into the big league of the mining industry. Instead it became a protracted legal struggle that culminated in a landmark international corruption trial in Geneva.
The billionaire businessman was last month sentenced to five years in jail for bribing a wife of Guinea’s late dictator Lansana Conté to win the rights to one of the world’s richest mineral deposits.
Steinmetz, who has long claimed to be the victim of a vast international conspiracy to deprive him of the rights to the Simandou project, plans to appeal. But whether or not he sees the inside of a cell, he will have to fight similar allegations in civil courts.
Brazilian mining company Vale has already obtained a worldwide freezing order against the mining magnate. Early next year it will ask a UK Court to enforce a $1.85bn arbitration award that Steinmetz has been trying to overturn regarding a failed joint venture in Guinea.
In a statement, the Rio-based company said it would “pursue collection” both from Steinmetz family mining group BSGR and Steinmetz personally. This would include litigation in London’s High Court, which it said had imposed a “worldwide freezing order on the assets of Steinmetz, his foundation and other defendants”.
But Steinmetz remains defiant after his conviction in Switzerland’s first international bribery trial, describing himself as “totally combative” and confident that what he called truth and justice would prevail.
“This judgment goes completely against the course of international justice,” he said in a statement that raged against “10 years of lies and manipulation”.
“I will soon have the opportunity to return to all of these scandals at greater length,” he added. “I remain totally combative and confident, justice will establish the truth.”
Simandou is one of the richest prizes in mining — a 2bn tonne deposit of high-grade iron, the key ingredient needed to make steel. It has the potential to transform the economy of poverty-stricken Guinea but has been dogged by legal disputes and allegations of corruption, and remains many years from production.
Steinmetz’s involvement dates back to 2008 when he won the rights to the first two of Simandou’s four blocks just before the death of Conté.
Until then all the blocks were controlled by global miner Rio Tinto, which is facing a separate UK bribery and corruption investigation into business dealings in Guinea.
According to Swiss prosecutors, BSGR bribed Mamadie Touré, one of polygamous Conté’s four wives, who persuaded her husband to strip Rio of its rights and hand them to BSGR despite the fact that it had no experience of exporting iron ore. BSGR received the blocks for nothing.
What the company did two years later has been described as one of the best private mining deals in a generation.
BSGR sold 51 per cent of the concession to Vale for $2.5bn — $500m upfront with the rest to follow if certain targets were met. Vale also invested $750m in Simandou.
But in 2014 the joint venture was stripped of all its rights after an inquiry launched by Guinea’s president Alpha Condé said they had been won through bribery, a charge BSGR and Steinmetz have always denied.
That was the cue for Vale to launch legal action against BSGR, claiming it had been fraudulently induced into investing in the project. The Brazilian group was awarded $2bn in 2019 by the London Court of International Arbitration.
The arbitration court found BSGR had made a “litany” of false statements during the joint venture negotiations with Vale and that it had bribed Touré to win the rights to Simandou and the nearby Zogota deposit.
Steinmetz believes he can show Vale already believed — albeit incorrectly — that BSGR had procured the rights through corruption and bribery before it decided to sign the deal. Vale rejects that claim.
Trying to enforce its arbitration win has been no easy task. Steinmetz holds his fortune through layers of often opaque corporate entities that campaign groups have spent years trying to decipher and unravel.
“What we are seeing is how difficult it is to hold men like Beny Steinmetz to account. It takes an organisation like Vale with a huge amount of resources to pursue him in this way,” said Kush Amin of anti-corruption campaign group Transparency International. “That’s why it is so important to have centralised public registers of beneficial owners of companies. In complex cases like this they are vital to understanding the web of corporate structures.”
Vale’s investigators are seeking to verify the ownership of landmark property assets they believe Steinmetz may control, according to one person briefed on Vale’s efforts to collect on its arbitration victory, including real estate in the US and Europe.
The Brazilian group claimed last year in court documents filed in New York that some of $500m “fraudulently” obtained in 2010 by BSGR for the iron ore joint venture was subsequently invested in Manhattan property.
Its lawyers have been seeking information from some of the biggest names in the New York real estate market as it tries to trace such cash.
Last month a district court judge in New York denied a motion by two companies, HFZ Capital and RFR Holding, seeking to quash subpoenas served by Vale.
Nysco, a company controlled by the Steinmetz family, said Vale’s allegations were “totally unsubstantiated and untrue”.
BSGR was placed into administration in Guernsey in 2018 to protect it from litigation. As well as its legal tussle with Vale, BSGR was embroiled in a separate arbitration battle with the government of Guinea.
That ended suddenly two years ago when BSGR dropped its claims on blocks 1 and 2. However, the agreement was not approved by BSGR’s joint administrators BDO.
The decision is now in the hands of BSGR’s new joint administrators, Alvarez & Marshall. If they decide not to sign off the agreement it would lead to the reopening of the Guinea arbitration case, with the next step being a decision on BSGR’s claim of misappropriation of its mining licenses and the government’s counter claim.
“Legal opinion from BSGR’s counsel following hearings which took place in Paris in May 2017 is that BSGR would win the arbitration,” said Nysco.
However, an adverse ruling in that case would be another setback for Steinmetz with the London litigation proceedings on the horizon next year.
“What is really fascinating to see . . . is how someone who has been dogged by allegations of corruption and bribery for so long has been able to escape liability whilst maintaining personal and business interests in so many jurisdictions,” said Amin. “But it is fair to say his options are narrowing and his legal avenues are becoming more difficult.”