Head of Russian state oil firm Rosneft Igor Sechin attends a signing ceremony after a meeting of Russian President Vladimir Putin with Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi at the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum 2016 (SPIEF 2016) in St. Petersburg, Russia, June 17, 2016. REUTERS/Mikhail Metzel/TASS/Host Photo Agency/Pool(reuters_tickers)
MOSCOW (Reuters) - Igor Sechin, head of Russia's biggest oil company Rosneft, set up a personal meeting with a government minister for what was in fact a law enforcement sting, after which state investigators charged the minister with receiving a $2 million bribe, two sources familiar with the case told Reuters.
Alexei Ulyukayev, who at the time was minister for economic development, was detained in the late night operation on Nov. 14 at Rosneft's Moscow headquarters. It was the first time in decades a serving Russian minister had been arrested. Ulyukayev, 60, denies the charges.
The Investigative Committee, the state body investigating the case, said in a statement at the time that Ulyukayev had extorted the $2 million in return for giving his ministry's approval for an acquisition that Rosneft made last year.
The operation at the Rosneft offices, just across the Moskva river from the Kremlin, was planned in advance by law enforcement agencies in conjunction with unnamed Rosneft officials, the state investigators said.
To make the operation happen, Sechin, in coordination with law enforcement officers, arranged to meet the minister in person that night at the Rosneft offices, according to the two sources. Reuters was unable to confirm their accounts independently.
At that meeting, Sechin was present when Ulyukayev was handed a large amount of cash, said the two sources, who declined to be identified because they were not authorised to discuss the case publicly.
The money that the minister is alleged to have received at the meeting is now part of the prosecution's case against Ulyukayev, the sources said. He was fired from his job soon after his arrest, and is under house arrest awaiting trial.
Asked about Sechin's involvement in the sting operation as outlined by the two sources, a Rosneft representative said: "Rosneft does not have the right to comment on investigative activities. We suggest approaching the Investigative Committee with this query."
The Investigative Committee did not respond to a request for comment. In a Nov. 15 statement, it said it had been able to detain Ulyukayev "thanks to Rosneft representatives alerting law enforcement agencies in a timely fashion about the minister's illegal actions".
A lawyer representing Ulyukayev declined to comment.
As Rosneft chief executive, Sechin heads the world's biggest listed oil company by output.
It is unusual in Russia for someone of his stature to get involved in a law enforcement operation, said Pavel Lapshov, a managing partner in the "Patron" law practice and a former senior interior ministry official.
"As far as I can remember, there have been no such cases," he told Reuters.
Sechin's role in the case bolstered his reputation inside the ruling elite as a feared Kremlin enforcer who wields an increasing amount of power within a system built up by Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to several government officials who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity.
Ulyukayev told a Moscow court after being arrested he was not guilty. One of Ulyukayev's lawyers, Timofei Gridnev, told Reuters on the day after Ulyukayev's detention that what happened with his client in the Rosneft office was a "provocation", but he did not elaborate.
(Additional reporting by Polina Nikolskaya; Writing by Christian Lowe, editing by Peter Millership)