Lies over gay liaison sink BP’s top executive

John Browne, the visionary head of one of the world’s largest oil companies, abruptly resigned Tuesday after a British judge found that he had lied in court during a battle to keep secret the details of a four-year love affair with a young Canadian man.

After the liaison ended last year, his 27-year-old lover, Jeff Chevalier, issued a “thinly veiled threat” against Lord Browne that he would embarrass the BP PLC boss, according to a court ruling released yesterday. Mr. Chevalier had made allegations in court that the chief executive had used BP money to support him and his business interests, and also shared company secrets.

Lord Browne, 59, denies those allegations, and BP chairman John Sutherland said in a statement that the company has investigated them and found they were “unfounded or insubstantive.”

The chief executive, who lived with his mother until she died four years ago, met Mr. Chevalier through the generic online escort agency in December, 2002, and began an uncloseted, though unpublicized, relationship. The two were seen together socially, dined at 10 Downing St. with Prime Minister Tony Blair and travelled together, including to company-related functions.

After they parted in early 2006, Lord Browne agreed to provide financial support for Mr. Chevalier for a year, including rent and furnishings for a Toronto apartment, court documents show. But the younger man demanded more money, saying he interrupted a fledgling IT career to be a “kept” man, and faced hunger and homelessness after four years of lavish living.

In January, the prominent corporate executive sought an injunction against The Mail on Sunday newspaper, which was planning to publish an exposé based on interviews with Mr. Chevalier. Lord Browne won a partial victory, but lost on appeal, and was denied a final hearing Tuesday.

In court, lawyers for Associated Newspapers Ltd., publisher of The Mail on Sunday, argued the case was not about Lord’s Browne’s lifestyle choice, but about his use of shareholders’ money to support his lover.

The former BP executive rejected those allegations. “For the past 41 years of my career at BP, I have kept my private life separate from my business life,” he said. “I have always regarded my sexuality as a personal matter, to be kept private.”

But it was his desire to keep secrets regarding his private life — even to the point of lying about it in court — that contributed to the humiliating end of his illustrious career.

In earlier testimony, Lord Browne told the court that he had met Mr. Chevalier, a Toronto native who had been living in London, while exercising in Battersea Park in south London. But the executive admitted he had lied. Though a court order prevents the release of Mr. Chevalier’s account of how they met, associates told The Guardian newspaper it was through the online escort service.

Lord Browne said that he resigned to spare the company further negative publicity. In doing so, he will forgo retirement benefits worth $7.8-million, and stock benefits potentially worth $26.8-million.

Lord Browne was considered one of the leading corporate executives of his age, launching a wave of mergers among the world’s largest oil companies; embracing environmentalism while other companies were battling it, and successfully positioning BP in Russia despite increasing hostility to foreign oil companies.

In the past two years, however, the company was rocked by major accidents in Texas and Alaska, which were blamed on Lord Browne’s leadership. For the past several months, he has been fighting to keep the problems in his personal life from destroying his career and reputation.

Oil analyst Fadel Gheit said Lord Browne had been “at the pinnacle of his career and all the sudden just fell in flames. It’s a shame really … the company has never been stronger.”

Mr. Chevalier was not available for comment Tuesday. His entry on the community bulletin board Facebook suggests that he graduated from Toronto’s Martingrove Collegiate Institute in 1997, and studied business at the University of Westminster, London, until last year.

In a ruling released Tuesday, Mr. Justice David Eady acknowledged that the details of the couple’s meeting were not particularly relevant to the injunction.

“On the other hand, what matters is that the claimant [Lord Browne] clearly thought it important at that time and quite deliberately, and casually, chose to lie to the court about it,” he said.

British courts are increasingly willing to grant injunctions to protect high-profile entertainers and business people from scandal-raking media. Earlier this year, the Law Lords of the House of Lords, Britain’s highest court, upheld an earlier ruling by Judge Eady that recognized Canadian singer Loreena McKennitt’s “right to the human dignity of privacy” by barring a tell-all book by a former employee.

In this case, however, the judge ruled that BP’s shareholders had a right to know whether a senior executive was abusing his position for personal benefit.

For its part, Associated Newspapers said Lord Browne should be charged with perjury for his courtroom lie, noting that former MP and novelist Jeffrey Archer and former cabinet minister Jonathan Aitken both went to prison for lying to the court.