First Petrobras employee flips in Brazil commodity traders probe
06 Feb 2020

A former trader at oil firm Petrobras has signed a plea bargain agreement with Brazilian prosecutors investigating bribery allegations, defense lawyers and prosecutors said, a potential breakthrough in a case involving some of the world’s top commodity trading houses.

Rodrigo Garcia Berkowitz, who was a trader at Petrobras’ Houston office until he was charged with accepting bribes in late 2018, reached the deal in principle in December, the lawyers said. A judge then approved it in late January, they added.

He is the first former Petrobras employee known to have formally flipped in the Brazilian bribery and corruption probe.

Prosecutors alleged in December 2018 that Vitol, Glencore Plc and Trafigura, among other trading firms, funnelled tens of millions of dollars of bribes from 2011 to at least 2014 to employees of state-run Petroleo Brasileiro SA, as Petrobras is formally known. In return, those firms would purchase Petrobras fuel at discounts or sell to the firm at a premium.

In court documents, Brazilian prosecutors have portrayed Berkowitz, who went by the code name “Batman” in messages with alleged co-conspirators, as a central player in the kickback scheme and a recipient of Vitol bribes. He previously pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit money laundering in the United States, where the Federal Bureau of Investigation has opened a separate probe of the matter.

But Brazilian prosecutors have sought to interrogate Berkowitz for their own separate case, saying in November court documents they consider his testimony “of extreme importance” for cracking the case, given his first-hand role in soliciting, receiving and laundering bribes.

Vitol, Trafigura and Glencore, which together control about 10% of the world’s oil consumption, have said they are cooperating with authorities.

Trafigura has denied that its current management knew of improper payments, referred and said that it “is continuing to keep these matters under review and is taking the allegations previously made seriously.”

Vitol said it “has a zero tolerance policy in respect of bribery and corruption.”

Glencore declined to comment on Tuesday. Petrobras did not respond to a request for comment.

By Gram Slattery, Gary McWilliams, Julia Payne, Reuters, 4 February 2020

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