How an international bribes scandal, a cover-up and a trove of leaked emails ended in a suburban Brisbane arrest

The arrest on Wednesday of a former high-flying Australian executive can be traced to a fateful decision made in 2012 on the public holiday to pay tribute to Monaco’s Prince Albert.

Russell Waugh leaving Brisbane Magistrates Court on bail after his arrest on Wednesday.
Russell Waugh leaving Brisbane Magistrates Court on bail after his arrest on Wednesday.Credit:Rhett Hammerton

On Tuesday evening, two federal police agents boarded a flight from Sydney to Brisbane bearing an arrest warrant. Their trip had been a long time coming – it was the last leg of a nine-year investigative journey in the most exhaustive and important corporate bribery probe in the history of the Australian Federal Police.

Operation Trigg has been overseen by three police chief commissioners, outlasted four superintendents, been scrutinised by multiple parliamentary committees and prompted reforms to corporate crime laws. But until this week, nobody in Australia had actually been charged with bribery.

On the contrary, over the years, Operation Trigg had come to symbolise the federal police’s seeming inability to catch alleged criminals at the top of Australia’s corporate tree.

The flight to Brisbane was designed to change all this – to remedy a history of weak laws and police inaction on corporate crime. The arrest warrant contained allegations about a stunning international corporate criminal conspiracy inside listed Australian firm Leighton Holdings between March 2010 and mid 2012.

The warrant’s message for corporate Australia was this: if the AFP found evidence of alleged business corruption, it was prepared to spend millions and take years to hunt down the well-resourced, suit-wearing corporate kings allegedly responsible.

The oilmen

Leighton (renamed CIMIC in 2015) was responsible for some of Australia’s biggest infrastructure projects under the stewardship of veteran chief executive Wal King. Very few large Australian infrastructure projects were let without at least a bid by a Leighton firm. Before King resigned that position in January 2011, he and his key executives David Savage and Russell Waugh had also driven the firm’s bold global expansion through its subsidiary, Leighton Offshore.


By early 2010, Savage and Waugh had singled out Iraq as a country that could help Leighton realise a vision to be as big abroad as it was in Australia. Iraq’s revitalisation of its oil industry created huge business opportunities, but came with great and obvious risk: it was a country with endemic bribery and corruption.

Former Leighton executive Russell Waugh arrested in Brisbane on alleged bribery charges involving Unaoil.
Former Leighton executive Russell Waugh arrested in Brisbane on alleged bribery charges involving Unaoil.

The decision to finally make Wednesday’s arrest suggested that police believed that Waugh and Savage, along with a third former Leighton executive, Peter Cox, knew this but did not care. Among the painstakingly gathered evidence were multiple emails suggesting that Waugh, Savage and Cox had all participated in an allegedly unlawful scheme that had begun inside Leighton in March 2010. The scheme had paid off spectacularly, delivering not only a huge project — more than $1 billion in Iraq government oil pipeline works — but also windfalls for top Iraqi officials.

Documents suggest those who allegedly received millions of dollars in bribers include an Iraqi deputy prime minister, two oil ministers and several high-ranking oil officials.

King, who was interviewed by police mid-way through Operation Trigg, is not accused of any crime and there is no suggestion he knew of the bribery. But the police case outlines a conspiracy that began under his watch, continued during his last eight months as Leighton’s chief executive and involved some of his most senior executives. Savage, for instance, was Leighton’s Chief Operating Officer and Waugh served as acting chief executive of Leighton Offshore (Waugh later became the chief executive of listed Australian engineering giant UGL).

Paperwork filed by the Australian Federal Police with the Brisbane Magistrates Court reveals that Waugh is facing a foreign bribery charge and potentially up to 10 years in jail if convicted for his alleged part in a conspiracy that began in March 2010 and finished in mid-2012.

Other documents obtained by The Age and Herald and shared with police in 2016 – along with the court filings involving Waugh – suggest Savage and Cox will face criminal charges if they return to Australia from France and Asia respectively.


A trove of emails

The police case would never have led to charges but for two things: the tireless work of federal agents including the two senior detectives on the Brisbane bound flight– Colin Hunt and Mark Cliff – and a major investigation by The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

The key breakthrough from this investigation, which began in 2013, was a data leak of hundreds of thousands of internal documents from a now notorious company called Unaoil, run by the wealthy Ahsani family of Monaco.

The publishing of the leaked Unaoil documents by The Age and Herald in March 2016 led to raids overseas, arrests across Europe and the jailing of Unaoil managers in the UK. According to filings by the US Department of Justice in 2019, Unaoil was a bribery machine. The firm was hired by multinationals between 1999 and 2016 to pay kickbacks to foreign officials to win massive government projects in Algeria, Angola, Azerbaijan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran, Kazakhstan, Libya, Syria and Iraq. Unaoil was used as a middle-man by some of the world’s best-known firms, including Rolls Royce, Hyundai, Samsung and Halliburton.

The men of Unaoil: Monaco-based socialites Cyrus, Saman and Ata Ahsani
The men of Unaoil: Monaco-based socialites Cyrus, Saman and Ata Ahsani

In 2018 and 2019, industrial behemoths Rolls Royce and TechnipFMC settled Unaoil related investigations run by US or British agencies by paying hundreds of millions of dollars. But a missing link had always been the Australian executives from Leighton, which had also hired Unaoil to further its business in Iraq.

When Operation Trigg began in 2012, criminal charges were considered unlikely given the paucity of evidence. The Unaoil data leak to journalists changed that dramatically. It produced such reams of evidence that it ultimately left the Ahsanis with no choice but to confess. In 2019, Cyrus and Saman Ahsani agreed to plead guilty in the US in a case that will implicate several large American companies and senior executives.


What has remained secret until this week is the fact that the federal police has also secured the co-operation of the Ahsani brothers in Australia. According to overseas law enforcement sources speaking on condition of anonymity, the brothers’ testimony could be crucial in the prosecution of former Leighton managers Waugh, Cox and Savage.

Former Leighton Chief Operating Officer David Savage in 2010.
Former Leighton Chief Operating Officer David Savage in 2010.

The cover-up that backfired

The Unaoil data leak can be traced to a fateful decision made in 2012 by the Ahsanis on the public holiday held to pay tribute to Monaco’s Prince Albert.

The family had been feeling nervous. A number of international press reports led them to fear their bribery operation might be exposed. One such report had revealed that Italian police were examining the conduct of European multinational ENI, one of Unaoil’s clients.

In Australia, The Age and Herald reported in early 2012 that the Australian Federal Police were investigating Leighton for paying bribes in Iraq. The AFP probe had been started by the discovery inside Leighton of a note written in November 2010 by acting CEO David Stewart, who was preparing to take over from Wal King in January 2011. Stewart documented an extraordinary statement purportedly made in his office by Chief Operating Officer David Savage and which involved an admission that Leighton had hired a consultant in Monaco to pay bribes in Iraq.

While the public reporting of the police interest in Leighton contained no mention of Unaoil, the Ahsanis decided to clean shop. And so they waited for a long weekend in Monaco when no staff were in their office and dispatched an IT expert to wipe the company hard drives clean.


The cover-up would have served its purpose if not for a small group of Unaoil employees who were opposed to the Ahsanis’ corruption and who had stashed several back-up drives in various locations. Then they waited. In 2015, one of those employees contacted The Age’s investigative unit via an anonymous letter. It outlined instructions to initiate communication with the employee by placing a coded advertisement in a French newspaper, Le Figaro.

After a further series of messages, The Age and Herald met the employee at a steak restaurant in France. In the following months, the hard drives the Ahsanis had sought to delete were delivered to Australia and, some months after that, the Unaoil insider agreed to meet with the FBI.

Throughout early 2016, The Age and Herald’s investigative reporters waded through gigabytes of emails that Cyrus and Saman Ahsani had sought to destroy. They revealed a family that had used its stature and credibility to conceal extraordinary criminality. The Ahsanis were Monaco millionaires and members of the global elite who rubbed shoulders with princes, sheikhs and the cream of European and American society.

The family’s charities supported children and the arts and Ahsani family members sat on the boards of NGOs with former politicians and billionaires. Their leaked emails showed they had cash, shares and property worth 190 million euros. They also showed how the multi-million dollar fees Unaoil took from its clients were funnelled into an industrial-scale bribery operation which further entrenched corruption among the powerful few. And also that one of their favoured clients was Leighton.

Leighton is now known as CIMIC.
Leighton is now known as CIMIC.

The Australian connection

The leaked emails revealed that to secure Leighton a sizeable slice of a $2 billion oil pipeline project in Iraq, Unaoil had, in 2010 and 2011, agreed to pay millions of dollars in bribes to influence Iraqi officials including then deputy prime minister Hussein al-Shahristani and oil minister Abdul Karim Luaibi.


According to an analysis of the leaked Unaoil emails by The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, the bribes were described in the emails using codes: a $1 million kickback was describes as a “one day holiday”; the oil minister was “M”; the deputy prime minister was “the Teacher”.

The leaked emails detailed how these alleged bribes were negotiated during calls to “M” and “the Teacher’s house at midnight.”

“Teacher is confident that he can knock out [Leighton’s rivals],” one email stated. Another described how the “Teacher and M will insist on delivery date to push L [Leighton] through.”

In another coded message, Unaoil discussed the need to “make sure our holiday period [bribe amount] is firm” in order to “please Teacher”. Amounts were discussed, too. There were promises of a $1.5 million payoff – which police say is described in code as “1.5 days holiday” – and, later, a $16 million payment directly to the “Teacher”.

The Unaoil emails showed that the bribe money came out of fees of more than $75 million that Leighton had promised to pay the Ahsanis. The emails also implicated Savage, Cox and Waugh, revealing how the trio were involved in funnelling an alleged $5.6 million bribe payment through the United Arab Emirates. For example, on April 25, 2011, Savage emailed Unaoil from his private Gmail account, stating that Leighton Offshore urgently needed the $5.6 million dollar transaction to occur.

“[Leighton Offshore chief] Russell [Waugh] has been trying to get an agreement signed and we urgently need it signed today,” Savage wrote to the Ahsanis.

A timely raid

Prior to exposing Unaoil’s operations in April 2016, The Age and Herald had provided the Australian Federal Police, the FBI and UK authorities with the leaked data. This enabled detectives to raid Unaoil’s Monaco office in the hours before publication. The Unaoil emails provided the federal police critical new evidence about Leighton’s alleged bribery.

For the next four years, a small team of federal police investigators pieced through the emails, building criminal briefs of evidence and sharing nuggets with agents at the FBI and UK Serious Fraud Office who were busy doing the same thing.

Unaoil was helping large western companies pay bribes and buy influence in Iraq's oil industry.
Unaoil was helping large western companies pay bribes and buy influence in Iraq’s oil industry.

For much of this time, the Ahsani family tried to nobble investigations into Unaoil’s affairs. They hired senior barristers to claim the police investigation into the firm was illegal. They hired UK public relations firm Tancredi and Australian lawyers, who fed multiple stories to Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian in an attempt to cast doubt over the veracity of the expose and to create sympathy for the Ahsani family. The Australian’s legal affairs reporter Chris Merritt reported in February 2017 that Unaoil would sue The Age and Herald reporters “within weeks”.

No law suit was ever filed. Instead, police in the US, UK and Australia closed in.

The private school educated, suit-wearing Ahsani brothers may have appeared brash and defiant when publicly proclaiming their innocence, but when the prospect of long stints in jail became real in 2019, they did what many crooks do. They cut a deal with the FBI.

A short time later, Australian Federal Police detectives boarded a plane to Washington.

The Ahsanis’ decision to co-operate with the AFP, along with damning emails leaked back in 2016, ultimately saw federal agents on Tuesday boarding another plane, this time to Queensland.

Documents filed with the Brisbane Magistrates Court reveal that the federal police had already spent months circling former Leighton executives David Savage, who now lives in France, and Peter Cox, who is in Asia. If the pair ever return to Australia or are extradited here, they will be charged. The filings also leave open the prospect that Leighton Holdings (which is now called CIMIC) will face a corporate corruption charge for engaging in bribery between early 2010 and mid 2012.

But the trip to Brisbane was aimed at Russell Waugh. The balding former chief executive had kept a low profile since the Unaoil scandal had broken. One of his former colleagues says Waugh likely believed he would never face criminal charges over the Iraq scandal. But on Wednesday morning, more than nine years after Operation Trigg identified him as a “person of interest”, he became the first senior executive from a major listed Australian company to face foreign bribery charges.

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