Lurid bribery revelations led the government of Guinea to confiscate world-beating iron ore reserves from junior mining company BSG Resources in 2014. So when bitter rival Rio Tinto, owner of a neighbouring concession, detonated a scandal over its own secretive payments, BSGR boss Beny Steinmetz was cock-a-hoop.
Developments in this sordid tale have kept the mining world agog. The concessions high in West Africa's Simandou Mountains have yet to deliver a single tonne of ore but continues to yield an unending stream of dirt--and to provide object lessons to an industry with a sorry history of dodgy deals.
Details of Rio's relationship with François Polge de Combret, a French banker and university friend of Guinea's president have been explosive--and have already cost two top executives their jobs [paywall]. They prove the Guinean government singled BSGR out unfairly, says Beny Steinmetz, the billionaire diamond magnate behind the company.
"It's a big conspiracy against us," said Steinmetz, who is under criminal investigation in at least three countries over the Guinea bribery. "They tried to paint themselves as nice and clean but they never wanted to develop one tonne of iron ore. We are the good guys."
But emails and court testimony seen by Global Witness show it wasn't just Rio tangling with de Combret: BSGR had its own relationship with the president's confidant--a potentially lucrative arrangement for the banker had he succeeded in helping Steinmetz retain the asset.
Global Witness first exposed BSGR's Guinea imbroglio in 2012. The latest revelations are a reminder that no one has come well out of the Simandou saga--least of all the Guinean people, whose country clings obstinately to the bottom end of almost every development index despite the untold riches beneath its soil.
But let's start at the beginning.
Rio had been sitting on Simandou for over a decade. The colossal ore trove promised to be a game-changer in the global market. But Simandou is remote and mountainous, and Guinea's infrastructure is poor. For Rio, conditions were never quite right and as the Simandou project languished, Guinean frustration mounted.
In July 2008, matters came to a head. The government abruptly cancelled half of Rio's Simandou rights, handing them to BSGR. Steinmetz's relative inexperience with big mining projects didn't prevent him from cashing in: within 18 months BSGR had sold 51 per cent of its holding to Brazilian mining giant Vale for $2.5 billion--twice Guinea's entire budget at the time.
Only later did it emerge that there was more to the deal than simply getting a stalled project off the buffers. In 2013 Global Witness revealed a massive bribery scheme: BSGR had signed contracts promising one of the wives of Guinea's ailing dictator, Lansana Conte, millions for her influence to get the mine. The following year, the newly elected democratic government stripped BSGR of its rights after an inquiry. Authorities in Israel, Switzerland and the US have launched criminal investigations.
Meanwhile, Rio had its own problems. The Anglo-Australian company was still dragging its feet in developing its remaining half of Simandou and by mid-2011 the Guinean government was threatening to take that too. It took months of talks, promises to build a port and a railway, $700 million and - according to the leaked emails - the services of François Polge de Combret for Rio to keep a grip on its Guinean assets.
Guinean authorities have raised concerns that Rio may have been paying de Combret to secretly fight its corner while he was advising the government. "It raises both legal and ethical concerns if, as media reports suggest, Mr de Combret was passing on privileged information in return for large amounts of money," said Guinea's mining minister. "Mr de Combret was at the time acting in a capacity that would have given him access to highly confidential information."
De Combret didn't come cheap: Rio negotiated his fee down to $10.5 million. With billions at stake, it seemed a bargain.
"I accept that this is a lot of money, but I also put forward that the result we achieved was significantly improved by Francois' contribution and his very unique and unreplaceable services and closeness to the President," wrote Rio's head of energy and minerals Alan Davies in a May 2011 email to other executives. When that email and others were leaked online, Davies and Rio legal chief Deborah Valentine got fired.
Joy in the Steinmetz camp. "We have been fighting very powerful forces," the billionaire told Bloomberg in a rare interview. "We all knew justice would prevail. I feel vindicated."
Not so fast.
If Rio was in dodgy territory with de Combret, BSGR wasn't far behind. An 11 April 2012 email seen by Global Witness suggests Steinmetz's company had an almost identical arrangement with the French middleman. By this time BSGR was fighting off the Guinean government's corruption inquiry. BSGR knew that a finding against it could lead to the confiscation of its blocks.
"Dear Francois," wrote a mutual friend of de Combret and BSGR agent Frederic Cilins, who later served time in a US prison for his role in the Simandou bribery. "A matter has just been brought to my attention regarding iron ore in the area of Simandou. I don't know the details but apparently this zone has been the subject of negotiations and of a contract with the Israeli group BSGR."
"It seems that you know this dossier well," the friend wrote. "Would you accept to speak with the person who brought BSGR into Guinea? The man in question is Frederic Cilins."
"I'll have to ask the authorisation of the President," replied de Combret in a message forwarded to Cilins.
On November 18 2012, de Combret sent Cilins from his iPad the outlines of a hypothetical agreement to end Steinmetz's dispute with Guinea: BSGR would hand back its 49% stake in its two Simandou blocks, while the proceeds from selling the remaining 51% to Vale would be split between BSGR and the government. De Combret then helped arrange a meeting between Guinea, BSGR and Vale "to discuss an amicable settlement", arbitration documents show.
Through de Combret, BSGR was "trying to explore whether a settlement with President Conde would be possible", Steinmetz told the arbitration hearing in an affidavit. Had "efforts through M. de Combret led to the project getting back on track I would have advised BSGR to pay a fee. It would have been a very valuable contribution."
The settlement drawn up by de Combret never materialised. In December 2016, Steinmetz was arrested in Israel [paywall]
over Simandou bribery payments (he was released on bail with a travel ban, though arrangements were made to fly him to Geneva for questioning by Swiss prosecutors).
Rio, for its part, took the drastic step of reporting itself to authorities in three countries, with a warning to investors that the de Combret affair "could ultimately expose the group to material financial cost". Davies has said "there are no grounds for the termination of my employment".
So far there have been no winners in the battle over Simandou. But in the case of BSGR, anti-corruption agencies have shown they can collaborate globally to tackle the bribery that drains billions from the world's poorest countries.
Similar scrutiny of Rio's payments would send a clear message to the biggest beasts of the mining world that it is time for the old ways to change.