Alexander Machkevitch, Patokh Chodiev and Alijan Ibragimov – the trio of central Asian business partners who created the company – are being pursued by ENRC's former head of corporate finance, Kirill Stein, who claims he is owed unpaid fees and interest relating to his work in raising a $1.48bn loan for the group as well as its £8bn 2007 London flotation.
The news of the impending legal battle in London's high court comes as the company prepares to navigate yet another controversial event on Friday, as it holds a general meeting to approve a $550m deal aimed at buying out its main copper and cobalt mining partner in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).
The campaign group Global Witness has said it fears the acquisition presents "corruption risks" and that the unusual Christmas timing of the meeting "is likely to help keep attendance at a minimum level, despite the importance of this deal for the company and, indeed, for Congo". ENRC has said it is "resolutely opposed" to bribery and corruption.
In Stein's case against the founders – which also names three of the oligarchs' children, Mounissa Chodieva, Alla Machkevitch and Dostan Ibragimov – the financier claims to be owed $18.4m in outstanding fees, plus a further $9m in interest, after being hired to arrange a loan to fund the construction of an aluminium smelter in 2005 as well as raising finance "by way of an initial public offering".
Stein has already received $5m from the oligarchs, who are each worth $2.8bn according to the Forbes list of the world's billionaires. The founders and their children deny the allegations and in their defence documents the founders claim Stein was never hired to work on the flotation – which would have attracted $15.5m of the fees that allegedly remain unpaid.
If the case comes to court it promises to reveal many secrets around the formation of one of London's most colourful companies, which has been fighting to restore its reputation in the City after a string of controversies.
The company has investigated allegations of corruption in its business in Kazakhstan, and is currently doing the same in Africa, in order to report its findings to the Serious Fraud Office. As part of its efforts to tidy up its African business, ENRC said earlier this month it would spend $550m buying itself out of its Congo copper mining partnership with the controversial Israeli billionaire Dan Gertler, following months of pressure from politicians and campaign groups.
Gertler, who is a close friend of DRC president Joseph Kabila, has been accused of being allowed to buy the country's mining assets on the cheap. He has consistently denied the allegations and in an interview with Bloomberg earlier this month declared he should be awarded a Nobel prize for his work in the DRC, which remains rooted to the foot of the UN's human development index.
The deal is almost certain to be waved through at Friday's meeting as ENRC is 35% owned by the trio, while fellow Kazakh miner Kazakhmys owns a further 26% and the Kazakh state holds 12% of the shares.
The frequent bad publicity and the interest of the SFO have contributed to ENRC's shares dropping 54% this year, even though its chairman, Mehmet Dalman, has been vocal about his own efforts to hold the company to higher corporate governance standards.
Dalman's charm offensive came after he became chairman in February, following a boardroom coup in which two former directors were ousted. One described the move as being "more Soviet than City".
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