Saturday, 1 December 2012
In Ukraine, Mystery Man Fakes A Natural Gas Deal
MOSCOW, Russia -- For two months, Jordi Sarda Bonvehi negotiated with Ukrainian officials on behalf of a Spanish utility company about participating in a $1 billion investment fund to build a liquefied natural gas plant on the Black Sea. On Monday, he took part in a signing ceremony for the deal overseen by the prime minister in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital. The only problem is that the utility company, Gas Natural Fenosa, has never heard of him. “Gas Natural has not signed any contract to invest in an L.N.G. plant project in Ukraine, nor is it leading any consortium whatsoever,” the company said in a statement soon after the ceremony. “Gas Natural Fenosa has nothing under study in this regard, nor does it have representatives working in Ukraine on this issue.” Ukrainian officials have now conceded that Mr. Bonvehi, if that is indeed his real name, is certainly not a representative of Gas Natural. The man’s motive for signing the agreement was still unclear Thursday, though it did not appear that he benefited financially. “We never doubted he was authentic,” Vladislav Kaskiv, the director of the Ukrainian state investment agency, who signed the document with the man, said in a telephone interview. Mr. Kaskiv was reportedly initially shocked by Gas Natural’s denial. The agency had harbored no suspicions, Mr. Kaskiv said, because Mr. Bonvehi, a bald man with a goatee, had been regularly showing up for talks over two months, once even traveling to the resort town of Yalta on the Black Sea, far from the capital, for a meeting about the investment fund. At the signing ceremony in Kiev, however, the man had appeared nervous and spoke often on his cellphone. Soon afterward, the Spanish-speaking man brushed past journalists who tried to speak to him. Mr. Kaskiv missed a cabinet meeting this week and said he was “disappointed” by the confusion. A phone number Mr. Kaskiv provided for Mr. Bonvehi was not answered Thursday. Reuters reported a telephone conversation with a man in Barcelona who identified himself as Mr. Bonvehi and said he had signed the agreement, though he had no authorization from Gas Natural to do so. “I thought I could sign it and then settle it with the company,” he said, according to Reuters, which added that it could not independently establish the man’s identity. The development was a peculiar setback for a high-profile project, and one with geopolitical overtones. The Ukrainian state investment agency had been seeking financing to form an investment fund worth 850 million euros ($1.1 billion) to build the re-gasification terminal on the Black Sea. The contract was a nonbinding memorandum of understanding; Ukrainian officials have said they will continue talks with other potential investors. The terminal was intended as a first, significant step for Ukraine to diversify its energy supplies away from Russia’s Gazprom, which has shut off natural gas supplies twice in the last few years in politically charged price disputes. The facility to import gas from the Persian Gulf or the Caspian region would give Ukraine leverage in these talks. With so much at stake, Ukraine’s government announced the deal on Monday with Prime Minister Mykola Azarov and Yuriy Boyko, the energy minister, presiding over the ceremony. Edward Scott, a vice president of Excelerate, a company based in Woodlands, Tex., that specializes in liquefied natural gas equipment, signed a separate contract to supply equipment for the terminal. His identity is not in question. At one point during the event, a live video feed showed welders, sparks flying, at work on a pipeline ostensibly being built for the new gas terminal. “We can call Nov. 26 energy independence day for Ukraine,” Mr. Kaskiv said at the event. In a statement, the agency identified the man who signed the contract as a Gas Natural executive, Jordi Garcia Tabernero. Gas Natural, though, denied in a statement having signed any agreement and said Mr. Tabernero was not in Ukraine on Monday. Mr. Tabernero, as a photograph on a company Web site shows, has a full head of hair. Mr. Kaskiv said the initial statement had misidentified the man because of a clerical error. The agency had expected Mr. Tabernero to attend, he said, but when he did not, another Spanish speaker signed in his place. That man, of course, is still something of a mystery.