14 May 2018
AP — On the sixteenth floor of the headquarters of Odebrecht, the construction company at the center of one of the largest graft scandals in history, the executive charged with stamping out corruption insists the firm has changed its ways.
Meanwhile, at the reception area downstairs, a justice official delivers the latest subpoena from Brazilian investigators to question company employees.
The contrasting currents sum up the situation for what used to be one of the most powerful businesses in Latin America as it works to move beyond an astonishing scandal that upended the political order in Brazil, brought down Peru’s president and continues to have ripple effects in other nations.
“We have only one chance to change, and to change definitively,” said Olga Pontes, chief compliance officer, during an interview with The Associated Press. “We can’t make mistakes.”
While the company has made considerable efforts to change its culture, questions remain about whether the firm can regain trust, particularly abroad, after years of funneling hundreds of millions of dollars into the pockets of politicians, elected officials, political parties and executives to win construction mega-projects in Brazil and across the region.
There is also the question of whether a company that built an empire in part by skirting the rules can now thrive while playing by them. While the company continues to function — earlier this month Odebrecht Engineering and Construction announced a $600 million deal to build a port in Espirito Santo state — its sales have plunged by one third.
“I don’t know how Odebrecht will ever recover,” said Jose Carlos Martins, chairman of the Brazilian Chamber of Industry and Construction. “And what will they do if a competitor appears and does everything they used to do?”
In December 2016, Odebrecht and Braskem, a petrochemical subsidiary, reached an agreement with American, Brazilian and Swiss justice officials to pay $3.5 billion in penalties in what the U.S. Department of Justice called “the largest foreign bribery case in history.”
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