RIO DE JANEIRO/SAO PAULO—Trading giants Vitol, Trafigura, and Glencore paid over $30 million in bribes to employees at state-owned oil company Petroleo Brasileiro SA, Brazil prosecutors said on Dec. 5, in a graft scheme they believe is ongoing.
Top executives of the international companies had “total and unequivocal” knowledge of the graft scheme, which began in 2009, investigators said at a news conference in Brazil, adding that the details being made public were just the “tip of the iceberg.”
Petrobras employees offered the trading companies lower prices for oil and its derivatives as well as storage tanks in more than 160 separate operations then shared in the savings, authorities said.
“Evidence shows that there was a scheme in which the companies investigated paid bribes to Petrobras employees to obtain … more advantageous prices and sign contracts more frequently,” prosecutors said in a statement.
They said the bribes moved through bank accounts in the United States, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Switzerland, and Uruguay, among other nations, raising questions of whether those countries would open investigations.
Brazilian police alerted Interpol, seeking the arrest of a Petrobras employee in Houston.
Petrobras said it was cooperating with authorities and viewed itself as a victim of corruption.
“… We are the most interested party in seeing all the facts come to light,” the company said in a statement. “We will continue adopting all necessary measures to obtain a proper reparation for damages caused (to Petrobras).”
Spokesmen for the Glencore, Trafigura, and Petrobras declined to comment. A Vitol spokesman said the firm “has a zero tolerance policy in respect of bribery and corruption and will always cooperate fully with the relevant authorities in any jurisdiction in which it operates.”
The latest revelations are the strongest international links yet made public to the sweeping “Car Wash” probe, which is centered on political graft at Petrobras, as the Brazilian oil firm is known. U.S. prosecutors say the investigation has uncovered the biggest-ever corruption scheme.
Over 130 top businessmen and politicians have been convicted in connection with the case in Brazil, including former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who is serving a 12-year prison sentence.
The latest developments hit just as the oil giant was hoping to turn the page on corruption.
In September, Petrobras settled corruption charges for $850 million with Brazilian and U.S. authorities.
Separately on Dec. 5, it launched a new business plan saying its goal is to “strengthen the credibility, pride, and reputation of Petrobras.”
The latest Car Wash chapter could undermine Petrobras’ deals and ability to embark on privatization plans that Brazil’s far-right President-elect Jair Bolsonaro’s economy team wants to carry out.
Petrobras said a month ago it is selling its 50 percent stake in a Nigerian oil and gas exploration venture to a consortium led by Vitol for $1.53 billion as the state-controlled oil company reduces debt.
The deal has not yet closed and it was unclear how Dec. 5 action may affect it.
It was not the first time prosecutors have zeroed in on Trafigura, a commodities trading giant based in Geneva.
In March this year, a former top Trafigura executive, Mariano Marcondes Ferraz, was found guilty of bribing a Petrobras executive on behalf of his own company, Decal do Brasil. He was sentenced to over 10 years in jail.
Swiss prosecutors also have an ongoing related investigation, announced one month after Ferraz’s arrest in Brazil in 2016. The Office of the Attorney General in Switzerland had opened a criminal probe into an employee of Trafigura as part of a wider investigation into suspected corruption at Petrobras. It did not name the employee.
By Pedro Fonseca & Marcelo Rochabrun