By Brad Brooks
SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Brazilian prosecutors on Friday charged two former executives of oil trader Trafigura over allegations of paying at least $1.5 million in bribes to employees of state-run oil company Petroleo Brasileiro.
Prosecutors said in a statement that the charges against Mariano Marcondes Ferraz, a former Trafigura top executive, and Marcio Pinto Magalhaes, a country representative, were the first of many to come against the world's largest oil traders.
Last week, Brazilian investigators arrested eight men linked to the larger investigation of the oil traders, opening a new phase of the Car Wash probe that has brought down presidents, seen charges filed against a large swath of Brazil's political class, sent scores of once untouchable businessmen to jail and drastically changed the political landscape of the South American country.
Lawyers for Ferraz and Magalhaes did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Trafigura referred Reuters to a statement the company issued after last week's arrests, which said the company had zero- tolerance policies for bribery and corruption.
Vitol SA, Glencore Plc and Mercuria Energy Group are also under investigation in Brazil.
Investigators' evidence shows that Magalhaes now works for Chinese oil firm PetroChina in Brazil. Prosecutors accused Magalhaes in an arrest warrant of continuing corrupt practices until his arrest.
Petrochina did not immediately reply to a request for comment.
Federal prosecutors accused the European multinationals and some smaller players of collectively paying at least $31 million in bribes over a six-year period to employees at Petroleo Brasileiro, known as Petrobras, to sell them oil at sweetheart prices.
They said the firms' top brass had "total and unequivocal" knowledge that they were fleecing Petrobras and that the illicit activity may still be going on.
More than 600 pages of legal documents reviewed by Reuters portray what prosecutors describe as a bustling criminal enterprise fueled by creativity, competition and greed.
Authorities say the trading companies often used freelance middlemen in an effort to cover their tracks, allowing these businessmen to negotiate deals and pay off Petrobras collaborators using bank accounts in several countries.
Emails obtained by investigators show intermediaries hustling to profit from their connections, authorities said. Some shared spreadsheets divvying up to the last cent their cut of the spoils from deals with crooked Petrobras employees.
Mercuria has denied wrongdoing. Mercuria, Vitol and Glencore said they would cooperate with the Brazilian investigation. Trafigura said it was reviewing the allegations.
Mercuria and Vitol said on Thursday they have zero-tolerance policies for bribery and corruption. Glencore said it takes ethics and compliance seriously.
Petrobras said it was cooperating with authorities and viewed itself as a victim of the suspected corruption.
Arrest warrants were issued for 11 people, including one current employee of Petrobras, whom the oil firm has since fired because of "strong evidence against them that they were involved in irregularities," the company said in a statement.
Eight people in total have been arrested, including four former Petrobras employees.
Interpol alerts have been issued for three other suspects who are outside Brazil. None have been arrested.
Prosecutors say Ferraz and Magalhaes, the two men charged on Friday, funneled bribes to Petrobras employees between mid-2009 and September 2014.
Ferraz is already serving a 10-year sentence in Brazil for bribing a former Petrobras refinery manager on behalf of his own company, Decal do Brasil.
He was arrested in late 2016 and resigned from Trafigura.
Prosecutors charged that Magalhaes also engaged in bribery for other companies, including Glencore's fully-owned subsidiary Chemoil.
Apart from payments via Magalhaes, Glencore subsidiaries paid $4 million to other middlemen whom prosecutors suspect of bribing Petrobras officials, a judge's ruling approving arrest and search warrants stated.
(Reporting by Brad Brooks; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Grant McCool)
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Updated Date: Dec 15, 2018 00:05:52 IST