The Oil and the Glory

Was James Giffen telling the truth?

James Giffen, the oil dealmaker at the center of what was once the largest foreign bribery case in U.S. history, is officially a free man. The 69-year-old former oil adviser to Kazakhstan’s president, accused of diverting $78 million from oil companies to the Kazakh government, waited out more than a dozen federal prosecutors and sat ...

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James Giffen, the oil dealmaker at the center of what was once the largest foreign bribery case in U.S. history, is officially a free man.

The 69-year-old former oil adviser to Kazakhstan’s president, accused of diverting $78 million from oil companies to the Kazakh government, waited out more than a dozen federal prosecutors and sat through some two dozen court appearances and five trial dates over the course of seven years. Today, the effort paid off. Three months after prosecutors announced a stunning capitulation, dropping all foreign bribery, money laundering, and fraud charges against Giffen in exchange for a guilty plea on a misdemeanor tax charge, U.S. District Judge William Pauley ordered no prison time and no fines in sentencing proceedings at a Manhattan courthouse.

In handing down the non-sentence, Pauley seemingly validated the argument to which Giffen’s lawyers had clung since 2003: that whatever crimes Giffen had allegedly committed occurred while he was a highly valued foreign asset of the American intelligence. “Suffice it to say, Mr. Giffen was a significant source of information to the U.S. government and a conduit of secret information from the Soviet Union during the Cold War,” Pauley said today.

Giffen may have been lesser-known than the other businessmen-cum-criminal-defendants of recent decades, but he was equally colorful, a swaggering, coarse-talking, heavy-drinking womanizer and a charismatic fixture on the Caspian Sea. He arrived in Kazakhstan in 1992, but the trajectory that ultimately landed him there began in 1969, when he started traveling to Moscow as an aide to a Connecticut metals trader. Giffen worked his way up to become a major player in a U.S-Soviet business association with top-level political ties in both Washington and Moscow. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, business in Russia dried up, and Giffen moved on to Kazakhstan, which was quickly becoming one of the hottest oil plays on the planet.

Giffen managed to ingratiate himself with a man he called The Boss: Kazakh President Nursultan Nazarbayev. He became Nazarbayev’s chief oil negotiator and, prosecutors alleged, his personal banker. While honchoing some of the era’s biggest oil deals, he also diverted some $78 million in payments made to Kazakhstan by now-dead companies like Mobil, Amoco, and Texaco into Swiss and other bank accounts that he set up in the name of Nazarbayev, other senior Kazakh officials, and their relatives, prosecutors alleged. (U.S. diplomats said that Nazarbayev, an unindicted co-conspirator in the case, so dreaded being tarnished by a Giffen conviction that both he and his envoys pleaded repeatedly for the George W. Bush Administration to order the case dropped.)

The case seemed open and shut, since the prosecutors presented a detailed paper trail — provided by a Swiss magistrate — of Giffen slicing payments into tiny discrete pieces for transfer into secret Swiss bank accounts, rather than shifting them as a whole, a classic method of money laundering. Even at their most voluble and expansive in court, Giffen’s lawyers made no attempt openly to dispute the prosecution’s facts. They simply kept repeating that, whatever Giffen may have done, he was taking orders from the Kazakh government — a sovereign state entitled to its own ideas of legality — and otherwise serving the patriotic interests of the Central Intelligence Agency.

It was an audacious defense that many thought verged on the preposterous. For one thing, CIA officers of the era deny that Giffen was anything of the sort — he walked into CIA headquarters on his own volition and talked to agency officers about Kazakhstan, they said, but that was very different from being a trusted asset on an informal assignment. In short, they asserted, Giffen was simply another dude talking.

The CIA, however, appears to have refused to hand over many — if any — documents sought by the defense. Judge Pauley had ruled that such documents were obligatory if Giffen were to have access to his rights to adequately defend himself. So the prosecution was left with having to drop the charges.

In his sentencing remarks, Pauley said that he had had access to classified documents that no one else in the courtroom had seen, and that they largely validated Giffen’s claims. “He was one of the only Americans with sustained access to” high levels of government in the region, Pauley said. “These relationships, built up over a lifetime, were lost the day of his arrest. This ordeal must end. How does Mr. Giffen reclaim his reputation? This court begins by acknowledging his service.”

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