National Post (National Edition)
`We were hopeful, we had plans'
Ex-worker sues over time spent in Congo jail
Ronan O'Mhaoinigh had been working in the Republic of Congo for Alberta's United Safety International barely six weeks when the subpoena arrived.
It summoned him ominously to a courthouse in Pointe-Noire, heart of the central African country's sizable oil industry, to face unspecified legal accusations.
The situation quickly grew even more alarming. The Irish native learned he was being sued by the Canadian
firm's former agent, a man with links to the nation's autocratic rulers. The agent claimed O'Mhaoinigh had pocketed $2 million in unpaid fees owed to him, news to the novice employee.
Soon enough the judge had the United Safety worker handcuffed and hustled off to a local jail.
And for the next two months in 2015, O'Mhaoinigh and another employee languished in the lockup's hellish conditions, where 300 prisoners were jammed into a space equivalent to two basketball courts, guards kept their distance and violent criminals ruled the roost.
He eventually fled the country with his wife, a Congo native, but the couple are now suing United Safety in an unusual civil action. It alleges the Airdrie, Alta., oil and gas safety-equipment supplier was immersed in the corruption of what NGO Global Witness calls “one of the world's longest-lasting kleptocracies.”
The company exposed O'Mhaoinigh to danger through its questionable dealings with well-connected agent Marc Emanuelli, struck a backroom deal for his freedom that left a baseless criminal charge hanging over his head and laid him off not long after the ordeal, he charges.
“Just yesterday or the day before, I rang my wife to remind her of how we were before United Safety came along,” O'Mhaoinigh said in an affidavit filed a year ago in the Alberta Court of Queen's Bench. “We were hopeful, we had plans, we wanted children, we helped each other … United Safety and its directors took away all that.”
None of the allegations has been proven in court. A legal official called a “master” ruled this month against the plaintiffs' request for a “summary judgment” based on written submissions, saying the dispute would have to be settled at trial.
Unable to afford a lawyer in Alberta, the plaintiffs are representing themselves.
The company, l i ke O'Mhaoinigh, declined to comment on the action, but it has responded in court with a very different version of events.
United Safety says it had no idea Emanuelli was accused of involvement in shady activities, but did all it could with its Canadian and African lawyers to get O'Mhaoinigh released. In the meantime, the employee needlessly antagonized the judicial and political systems in Congo, tried to bribe a court officer, and spurned the help of United Safety and its lawyers, the firm charges.
He was laid off eventually, after taking months of paid leave, only because the global oil industry was crumbling and United Safety was pulling out of Congo, it says.
“United Safety worked tirelessly and at great expense to support and free Mr. O'Mhaoinigh from detention,” CEO Lee Whittaker says in an affidavit.
Regardless of whose account is more accurate, the case shines a light on the sometimes controversial role played by Western businesses in resource-wealthy developing countries like Congo, sub-Saharan Africa's third-biggest oil producer.
Despite its petroleum riches, Congo — also known as Congo-Brazzaville — is nearly bankrupt after years of corruption under strongman president Denis Sassou Nguesso.
In a report earlier this year, Global Witness noted that over US$1 billion of the state oil company's revenue is unaccounted for, something it says needs to be investigated given Congo's “long history of diversion of public funds by political elites.” Swiss authorities fined a company US$95 million in 2019 for employing bribery in the country, and San Marino confiscated $US17 million from Nguesso in a money-laundering investigation. Meanwhile, the president lives in luxury, spending a reported US$110,000 just on crocodile-skin shoes.
United Safety, which was founded in 1987, and boasts of its “excellent (employee) safety record,” has branch offices throughout the world, from Kazakhstan to Singapore, Romania and Saudi Arabia. It had been doing business in Congo since at least 2011.
O'Mhaoinigh moved to the country in 2012 with his Congolese wife, Marie Therese
Nenette Bouithy, the couple having met while both were working for Médecins Sans Frontières in Colombia. Bouithy started a wholesale flower-growing business. The husband first worked for a security company, then took the job as account manager with United Safety, spending the first three months training in Alberta.
He started work on the ground in January 2015, and a few weeks later received the subpoena, requiring him to meet the judge in a “dark, dungeon-like and untidy” office, his affidavit says. The official asked immediately if he had stolen Emanuelli's money.
O'Mhaoinigh said `No,” and pleaded ignorance of the whole situation, but the judge promptly had him arrested, as United Safety's lawyer said nothing, the suit alleges.
He was the only white man in the jail, the area for prisoners surrounded by a canal full of urine and excrement, with no running water available. Absent any guards, prisoners armed with razor blades and other weapons kept order, administering beatings with a metal rod on a daily basis, alleges the lawsuit.
O'Mhaoinigh said a sense of hopelessness overtook him, and he was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress and would lash out at his wife periodically for months after his release.
He says he knew nothing about Emanuelli at the time, but it turns out the firm had ended its contract with the agent days before the Irishman's
arrest in Pointe-Noire. The arrangement had given the French-Lebanese citizen 10 per cent of any deals the Calgary firm struck in Congo.
In a pretrial examination for discovery, United Safety CEO Lee Whittaker said Emanuelli had been hired as a sort of facilitator to navigate local culture, language, tax laws and other aspects of doing business in Congo.
But for at least one of his foreign clients, the businessman had a history of providing much more. According to the Swiss watchdog group Public Eye, Emanuelli helped the Swiss commodity trader Gunvor gain a foothold in Congo, introducing Denis Cristel Sassou Nguesso, the president's son, to Gunvor executives at a high-end hotel in Paris in 2008. Bribes were involved, Public Eye alleged.
Gunvor later worked with other go-betweens on more lucrative deals, and last year was convicted under Swiss laws of facilitating corruption in Congo, including the payment of millions in bribes.
With two of his own staff in jail, Whittaker wrote Emanuelli in 2015, offering to pay him $2 million in five instalments for his work that year, indicates a letter filed in court. The CEO wrote that he understood the agent would “proceed to the immediate release of my employees” and withdrawal of charges on receiving the letter.
But the CEO says in an affidavit that O'Mhaoinigh was not freed because of any payments United Safety made to Emanuelli. The company was also unaware of allegations of corruption against the agent, and has seen no objective proof of those charges.
O'Mhaoinigh argues in court documents his role was essentially to do what Emanuelli had been doing — help obtain business for United Safety. He questions why he was paid $54,000 a year and the local businessman millions if that money wasn't used for greasing the wheels of a corrupt government.
He alleges the company worked behind the scenes, tapping high-level contacts with Congo's leadership, to get him released and his passport returned. But O'Mhaoinigh alleges it left him still facing a criminal charge and fearful of more retribution from Nguesso allies. He says lawyers he retained were on the way to having him cleared completely but the company essentially short-circuited those efforts.
United Safety says it was the work of its own lawyers and nothing else that got its employees out of jail and that, in fact, all charges were dismissed. And the situation was exacerbated by O'Mhaoinigh's own actions, charges Whittaker's affidavit.
That includes his “aggressive and disrespectful behaviour” in the Congolese courts; attempt to bribe a police officer; refusal to co-operate with the company and its lawyer; political activism; and publication on the Internet of details of the case, which the judge deemed “an attack on his honour,” the affidavit says.
A letter from the company's lawyer that O'Mhaoinigh received after his release, also filed in court, accuses him of conducting a “campaign of defamation and denigration” against United Safety and Congo's judiciary, and said the firm reserved the right to take legal action against him if he persisted.
Regardless, O'Mhaoinigh says in court documents the episode has turned the couple's lives upside down.
They left Congo with nothing, touching down first in Spain, then moving to Ireland, O'Mhaoinigh says. He even tried to obtain a visa to Canada, but his application was rejected at that time because of the bogus criminal charge in Congo, he says in an affidavit.
He says his career in corporate finance is effectively over, the outstanding charge in Congo turning off most employers.
The lawsuit claims more than $18 million in damages, much of it for “economic loss.”
O'MHAOINIGH WAS ACCUSED OF RUNNING A `CAMPAIGN OF DEFAMATION AND DENIGRATION AGAINST UNITED SAFETY.