By Sabrina Valle
Dec. 6 (Bloomberg) — Brazilian authorities are investigating foreign companies including AP Moeller-Maersk A/S over allegations they bribed Petroleo Brasileiro SA executives in exchange for contracts, widening the probe from local suppliers to companies working on oil projects around the globe.
A prosecutor and a federal police agent said in interviews that they found evidence of international suppliers paying bribes through agents to Paulo Roberto Costa, the former Petrobras executive who is cooperating with authorities in exchange for a reduced sentence and has agreed to return more than $25 million he said he got from kickbacks.
Maersk said bribes are strictly forbidden for any employee or third party, commissions were paid within industry norms and the Copenhagen-based company has found no indication of improper or illegal activity. Rio de Janeiro-based Petrobras didn’t provide comment when contacted by phone and e-mail.
“We have some investigations, on marine transport for instance, made by Paulo Roberto Costa, with strong evidence of bribery payments to him by these companies, including Maersk,” Carlos Lima, the leading prosecutor for the case, said in an interview from his office in Curitiba, Brazil.
Opposition parties have seized on revelations from the 10 billion-real ($3.9 billion) money laundering and corruption investigation to criticize President Dilma Rousseff and her coalition in Congress. About 3 percent of the value of contracts with Brazilian construction companies signed with Petrobras were paid to company executives and political parties in the ruling coalition, Costa said in videotaped testimony that is part of the court record.
Costa’s lawyer, Joao Mestieri, didn’t respond to an e-mail and phone calls seeking comment.
Investigators are looking into whether the practice of paying bribes to secure contracts is also widespread with international suppliers, as it allegedly is with Brazil’s largest construction companies, even if it is through intermediaries.
“It is likely that other international companies will appear,” Police Chief Erika Mialik Marena said in an interview from her office in Curitiba. “There is still a lot of material to be analyzed.”
Maersk said it doesn’t have a contract with Costa and its Maersk Tankers division paid a 1.25 percent commission, working strictly within industry norms and using official invoices, through to a nominated bank in Rio de Janeiro.
“We have found no indication that Maersk has engaged in any improper or illegal activity,” the company said in the statement. “We have also actively sought and willingly provided information to the Brazilian Federal authorities and, through external counsel, arranged a meeting with the Federal DA in July 2014. We have not been contacted by the Federal authorities since then, but remain available to cooperate.” What began as a money-laundering investigation spread to Petrobras and some of Brazil’s biggest construction companies after police said they discovered links between Costa and a black-market money operator.
Lima said the prosecution office has been contacted by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, or SEC, on general aspects of the operation, dubbed “Car Wash” in a reference to a gas station owned by a money launderer targeted in early stages of the investigation. The SEC declined to comment.
If it is proven foreign companies paid bribes to obtain work with Petrobras they probably could be prosecuted under the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, or FCPA, said Marcio Monteiro Reis, a partner at law firm Barroso Fontelles, Barcellos, Mendonca & Associados.
“This is exactly what FCPA targets,” Reis, who specializes in energy and has defended Brazilian and international clients in similar cases, said in a telephone interview.
SBM Offshore NV, a Dutch supplier of floating oil platforms, agreed in November to pay $240 million to The Netherlands’s prosecution office to settle a case of alleged improper payments to sales agents for companies including Petrobras from 2007 to 2011.
“Potential risks for foreign companies doing significant business with Petrobras include subpoenas requiring them to provide documents and potentially additional information to U.S. authorities, and otherwise becoming involved in U.S. investigations,” Norton Rose Fulbright, a law firm with offices in 50 cities around the world, including Rio, said in an e- mailed statement.
Since 2009, the U.S. Department of Justice has convicted more than 50 individuals in FCPA and FCPA-related cases, and resolved criminal cases against more than 50 companies with penalties and forfeiture of about $3 billion.
Copyright 2014 Bloomberg.