US fines Exxon $2 mn over Ukraine-related sanctions breaches

Washington (AFP) - The United States on Thursday hit oil giant ExxonMobil with a $2 million fine for violating Ukraine-related sanctions at a time when Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was still in charge of the company.

The Treasury Department said Exxon had business dealings with Igor Sechin, president of Russian state energy company Rosneft, who was blacklisted under the sanctions imposed in the wake of the Russian annexation of Crimea.

The department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, the principal agency overseeing US sanctions programs, said Exxon failed to reveal the activity as required and "the violations constitute an egregious case."

OFAC said two US subsidiaries of Exxon signed eight legal documents with Sechin in May 2014 for oil and gas projects in Russia, after he was included in the sanctions in late April.

Tillerson stepped down as chief executive of Exxon in 2016 to serve as the Trump administration?s secretary of state.

Exxon said the Treasury Department's decision was "fundamentally unfair."

The company said in a statement it received "clear guidance" from the White House and Treasury Department that participating in a board meeting with Sechin would not constitute a violation so long as the meeting did not concern Sechin's personal business but instead operations of Rosneft, which was not blacklisted.

"OFAC is trying to retroactively enforce a new interpretation of an executive order that is inconsistent with the explicit and unambiguous guidance," the company said in a statement.

- No exceptions -

Exxon's statement included a list of media reports in which US officials said the sanctions targeted individuals, not companies.

But OFAC said the regulations made no distinction and Exxon should have known it would be legally barred from entering agreements countersigned by Sechin on behalf of Rosneft.

"No materials issued by the White House or the Department of the Treasury asserted an exception or carve-out for the professional conduct of designated or blocked persons, nor did any materials suggest that US persons could continue to conduct or engage in business with such individuals," OFAC said.

Tillerson's ties to the Kremlin were an important sticking point during his confirmation, as some lawmakers suggested they could pose a conflict for the head of US diplomacy.

The White House remains mired in controversy over the Trump campaign's connections to Russian authorities, with one of Trump's sons and his former campaign manager due to testify before Congress next week about contacts with Kremlin-linked individuals during the presidential campaign.