File picture: Ivan Alvarado

INTERNATIONAL - Rio Tinto Group’s calamitous $3.7billion (R49.5bn) coal deal in Mozambique, involving a plan to barge the fuel hundreds of kilometres down the Zambezi River, keeps coming back to haunt the world’s second-biggest miner - already grappling with another African misadventure.

US authorities filed fraud charges against London-based Rio, former chief executive Tom Albanese and ex-chief financial officer Guy Elliott, claiming that they had inflated the value of the coal assets acquired in 2011. The unit was sold for $50million in 2014, following impairments of about $2.9bn in 2013 and $470m a year later.

Rio raised $5.5bn from US debt investors, including $3bn after May 2012, when executives had told Albanese and Elliott that the Mozambique unit was likely worth negative $680m, according to a Securities and Exchange Commission complaint filed in New York.

“Rio Tinto intends to vigorously defend itself against these allegations,” the company said. Albanese, Rio’s chief executive between 2007 and 2013, said that “there is no truth in any of these charges.” Elliott, who retired in 2013, also refuted the allegations. He stood down as a non-executive director of Royal Dutch Shell, the company said yesterday.

Breach of rules

Rio has also agreed to pay a £27.4m (R484.4m) fine for a breach of disclosure rules concerning the Mozambique assets, the UK Financial Conduct Authority said. The Australian Securities and Investments Commission is also reviewing the issue.

There’s an onus on chairperson Jan du Plessis and the board to explain the issues around the SEC charges, Peter O’Connor, a Sydney-based analyst with Shaw and Partners saidyesterday. Rio’s Sydney shares declined 0.8percent to close at A$70.92 (R744.10), while rival BHP Billiton fell 0.5percent.

The charges come as Rio assists authorities in three countries over a separate case related to the $20bn Simandou iron ore project in Guinea. Rio said in November it had alerted authorities including the US Department of Justice and the UK’s Serious Fraud Office to a $10.5m payment to an external consultant made in 2011.

Raw material

Rio’s 2011 acquisition of Riversdale Mining, holder of the Mozambique assets, came as the producer sought access to coking coal in the Moatize basin at a time the nation was seeking to become a major supplier of the steel making raw material.

The plans unravelled as the government refused to allow Rio to barge coal down the Zambezi and amid prohibitive costs of accessing or building rail lines to a port. Estimates of recoverable coking coal held by the assets were also downgraded, Rio said in 2013.

Rio’s Albanese - who stepped down in August as chief executive of Vedanta Resources - and Elliott, “allegedly breached their disclosure obligations and corporate duties by hiding from their board, auditor, and investors the crucial fact that a multi-billion dollar transaction was a failure,” Stephanie Avakian, co-director of the SEC’s enforcement division said yesterday. Shell declined to comment on charges against Elliott.

Concerns over the carrying value of the coal assets were raised in January 2013, allegedly triggering an internal review, the SEC said. Shortly after, Rio announced Albanese’s departure and the major write-down, the SEC said.

The SEC charges that having already booked major write-downs following a takeover of Alcan, Albanese and Elliott knew that disclosing a second failure would “call into question their ability to pursue the core of Rio Tinto’s business model to identify and develop long-term, low-cost, and highly-profitable mining assets.” Rio recorded more than $29bn of charges after paying $38bn in 2007 for aluminum producer Alcan.

The UK’s FCA said Rio agreed to settle a breach of disclosure rules at an early stage and received a 30percent reduction on its penalty.

- BLOOMBERG