RWE, Germany’s biggest electricity utility, said it was investigating the possibility that false billing by a Dutch contractor and its suppliers could have cost the German company millions of euros.
The utility, based in Essen, said it is investigating whether bills for construction at two RWE power plants in Germany may have been falsified.
The work in question involves an RWE construction contractor, Dutch services provider Imtech, which operates a German subsidiary from Hamburg.
Imtech, in a statement, said its internal review of the allegations had so far turned up no evidence of fraud. RWE, in a statement, has said it is concerned by the allegations, but has otherwise declined to comment further.
Allegations of false billing by some Imtech rivals were first raised by a whistleblower at the Dutch company, who provided examples to Handelsblatt and a Dutch newspaper, De Telegraaf, of what were described as false or inflated bills for construction work.
The accusations focus on allegedly overpriced bids awarded to Imtech from 2008 to 2010 for work at two new RWE power plants in the northwest German cities of Hamm and Eemshaven.
Imtech allegedly won the lucrative, overpriced contracts because competitors, allegedly in collusion with Imtech managers, did not bid on the projects or submitted higher bids, guaranteeing the jobs would be awarded to Imtech, research done by Handelsblatt and De Telegraaf suggests.
The newpapers possess documents that suggest Imtech derived a profit margin on the projects of 30 percent. According to industry experts, the going rate for such work is usually 20 percent at most. The order volume at each power plant was initially estimated to be €31 million.
But volumes rose during construction to €41 million in Hamm and €55 million in Eemshaven, respectively, according to the documents.
When presented with the newspaper’s research, RWE said: “If there was an antitrust agreement to our disadvantage, we will pursue it.”
Imtech said that a whistleblower, whom it didn’t name, had initiated an internal examination that is being carried out by its compliance department. That probe has not uncovered wrongdoing, it said.
“So far, the investigation has shown no anti-competitive practices,” Imtech said in a statement. “The investigation, however, continues.”
The probes come at a bad time for RWE, which is fighting mounting losses in the wake of Germany’s decision to subsidize wind and solar energy.
The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, set in motion the country’s energy “transition” to alternative sources after the nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima, Japan, three years ago.
Under the plan, Germany plans to phase out nuclear power by 2022 – a decision that will force RWE to close 17 nuclear power plants, some of them almost brand new, and lose a main source of income. Since then, RWE has moved ahead with plans to lay off 13,000 people by 2016.
RWE produces more than 40 percent of its electricity from coal power plants and is a major producer of carbon dioxide pollution, earning it the ire of Germany’s environmentally sensitive public.
Imtech has been the focus of previous fraud investigations, which have led to the dismissal of several managers. German prosecutors in Hamburg have been looking into the newest allegations at Imtech for the last few weeks.
The probe could affect Commerzbank, Germany’s second-largest bank, which was part of a consortium that organized an unsuccessful sale of Imtech stock in a capital increase last month.
About half of the new shares Imtech wanted to sell were not sold and remain on the consortium’s books. Commerzbank still held €70.8 million worth of Imtech shares after the sale. Imtech’s share price plunged after the company addressed the allegations brought by Handelsblatt and De Telegraaf.
Commerzbank’s stake in Imtech plummeted to €46 million yesterday.
Another well-known plant engineering company was paid €360,000 from Imtech for the "planning and installation of a heating, ventilation and refrigeration system" in Eemshaven. To our knowledge, this company has not done the work," RWE said.
Unusual bills aroused the suspicion of whistleblowers at Imtech.
One Imtech competitor demanded €421,355 on October 28, 2010, for the installation of “smoke and heat extraction systems of the coal supply and the gypsum disposal facilities” at the RWE power plant Eemshaven.
Soon after, the bill was paid. Handelsblatt has a copy of the bill.
But the company that wrote the bill, a leading energy technology company, has apparently never worked on the construction site in Eemshaven. According to RWE, this work has not been carried out by this company, and the firm was also “not registered by Imtech as a subcontractor,” Germany’s largest producer of electricity said Wednesday after it examined the bill.
Another well-known plant engineering company received €360,000 from Imtech for “planning and installation of a heating, ventilation and refrigeration system” in Eemshaven.
“To our knowledge, this company has not done the work.” RWE said.
Handelsblatt has received copies of other apparently falsified bills.
Some were issued for contract work on RWE projects, others on the new Berlin airport.
“You have to imagine that we write and receive millions of invoices within the group,” said an Imtech manager. “If anyone wants to hide something, he can do that.”
But why did RWE not notice that the orders were unusually high?
One possible answer is perhaps complicity from an RWE insider, which RWE vehemently denied.
In a statement, RWE said the bill prices were examined “by a project team comprised of employees from different departments” before being paid.
“A participation of RWE decision makers can be ruled out,” RWE said.
A second possible explanation is incompetence, according to someone with knowledge of situation.
“Especially in Hamm, so many mishaps happened that €10 million or €20 million too much in the chaos might not have stood out,” according to an insider of the project.