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Australia's Rio Tinto to pay $15m to settle US probe

Anglo-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto will pay a $US 15 million penalty to settle an investigation into payments made to a consultant.

The civil penalty will settle an investigation by the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) into payments made to a former consultant who helped the company acquire rights to massive iron-ore deposits in Guinea.

The company agreed to the penalty for alleged violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act without admitting to or denying the SEC's findings.

According to the SEC, Rio Tinto hired a French investment banker and close friend of a former senior Guinean government official as a consultant to help the company retain its mining rights in the Simandou mountain region in Guinea.

The consultant began working on behalf of Rio Tinto without a written agreement defining the scope of his services or deliverables.

Eventually the mining rights were retained, and the consultant was paid $10.5 million for his services, which Rio Tinto never verified.

The SEC's investigation uncovered that the consultant, acting as Rio Tinto's agent, offered and attempted to make an improper payment of at least $822,000 to a Guinean government official in connection with the consultant's efforts to help Rio Tinto retain its mining rights.

Furthermore, the payments to the consultant were not accurately reflected in Rio Tinto's books and records, and the company failed to have sufficient internal accounting controls in place to detect or prevent the misconduct.

The mine has not been developed by Rio Tinto.

"Even well-designed controls need committed managers to be effective," said Charles Cain, chief of the SEC Division of Enforcement's FCPA Unit.

"Here, deficient controls were no match for managers determined to hire a consultant whose only ostensible qualification was a personal relationship with a senior government official."