The Times: Unravelling of the cover-up
By Carl Mortished
April 20, 2004
IT IS a tale of lies, intrigue, backstabbing and cover-up.
The report into the reserves scandal at Shell gives a horrible insight into the climate of panic and distrust that engulfed the senior executives of the multinational as they attempted to sweep under the carpet a fundamental problem — that the company was struggling to find oil.
Walter van de Vijver, the sacked head of exploration and anti-hero of the report by Davis Polk & Wardwell, the New York law firm, comes across as a pathetic figure. Finding that his predecessor, Sir Philip Watts, had left him a portfolio that was leaking like a sieve, Mr Van de Vijver fired off resentful e-mails to his boss (Sir Philip) saying he couldn’t perform miracles.
Like a whipped dog that fears its master’s wrath but craves another bone, the Dutchman railed at Sir Philip, but remained strangely loyal. A less than flattering performance review in November 2003 (delivered by the man who had created the mess) was the last straw for the Dutchman who told his boss he was tired of lying. He told his colleagues that the reserves review contained a “watershed reputational disaster”, that the problem was created in the 1990s and that he would not accept “cover-up stories”.
Instead, he joined Sir Philip in a further cover-up at a press conference in February where they pretended the reserves issue had only just arisen. Sir Philip abandoned his usual bullying tactic, apologised sweetly and then delivered another whopper. He said that he had always believed that Shell was complying with the rules, but dramatic events came to his attention late last year. “I remember writing down the words ‘get the facts and do the right thing’,” he said.
The report issued yesterday is largely Walter’s story, made up of the Dutchman’s voluminous e-mails and reports, written in a mixture of colloquial language and management jargon. “We are struggling on all key criteria (caught in the box)” he writes. There is almost nothing of Sir Philip’s story, other than his admonition, in May 2002, to Mr Van de Vijver that he should “leave no stone unturned” replacing Shell’s oil reserves in 2002.
The report is as much a tale of corporate misgovernance as malfeasance. One of the world’s largest oil companies had an internal reserves audit team of just one, a part-time former Shell employee who regrets that he was not forceful in enforcing the guidelines. But he admits that “it would have probably cost me my job”. Likewise, Judy Boynton, the finance director, was unable to police the system because no one reported to her.
The report does not explain why Shell’s dual boards, replete with famous names including Wim Kok, the former Dutch Prime Minister, were content with such a ramshackle system.