US firm pleads guilty to pay­ing bribes in Brazil, Venezuela

Malta Independent - - World - JOSHUA GOOD­MAN

A ma­jor U.S. as­phalt com­pany agreed to pay $16.6 mil­lion in fines while plead­ing guilty Tues­day to fed­eral charges that it paid mil­lions in bribes to of­fi­cials in Brazil, Ecuador and Venezuela for al­most a decade to win lu­cra­tive con­tracts.

The plea agree­ment by Sargeant Ma­rine Inc. is part of a broader, on­go­ing crack­down on cor­rupt deal­ings in South Amer­ica’s com­modi­ties mar­kets.

In what ap­pears to be a re­lated case, a for­mer oil trader at Switzer­land-based Vi­tol was charged Tues­day with pay­ing $870,000 in bribes to for­mer Ecuado­rian of­fi­cials from 2015 to 2020 in ex­change for fuel oil con­tracts. Vi­tol, which is not named in the in­dict­ment, pur­chased half of Sargeant Ma­rine in 2015.

Fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors in Brook­lyn said Sargeant Ma­rine and its af­fil­i­ates paid bribes be­tween 2010 and 2018 for con­tracts with state-run oil com­pa­nies in the three South Amer­i­can coun­tries, all of which were run by left­ist gov­ern­ments at the time. The Boca Ra­ton, Florida-com­pany net­ted more than $38 mil­lion in profits as a re­sult of the bribes.

Re­cip­i­ents in Brazil, where the bulk of profits were earned, in­cluded a con­gress­man, a Cabi­net min­is­ter and se­nior ex­ec­u­tives at state-run Petro­bras dur­ing the ad­min­is­tra­tions of for­mer Pres­i­dents Luiz Ina­cio Lula da Silva and his hand­picked suc­ces­sor, Dilma Rouss­eff. None of the for­eign of­fi­cials are iden­ti­fied by name in the plea agree­ment but Brazil­ian pros­e­cu­tors in 2018 charged a for­mer con­gress­man, Can­dido Vac­carezza, for ne­go­ti­at­ing with Sargeant Ma­rine the bribes paid to Petro­bras. Vac­carezza at the time was leader of the rul­ing Work­ers’ Party in the lower house.

Re­cently un­sealed court fil­ings in­di­cate that Daniel Sargeant, who used to run Sargeant Ma­rine, qui­etly pleaded guilty last De­cem­ber to con­spir­acy to com­mit money laun­der­ing and vi­o­late the For­eign Cor­rupt Prac­tices Act, which bars Amer­i­cans from pay­ing over­seas of­fi­cials in ex­change for busi­ness. He is await­ing sen­tenc­ing af­ter pay­ing $300,000 in cash bail. This month, a for­mer PDVSA man­ager once in charge of as­phalt sales was ar­rested in a re­lated case, bring­ing to seven the total num­ber of Sargeant Ma­rine ex­ec­u­tives, traders, agents and for­mer Venezue­lan of­fi­cials tied to the long run­ning bribery scheme.

An at­tor­ney rep­re­sent­ing Sargeant Ma­rine de­clined to com­ment.

False con­sult­ing con­tracts and fake in­voices were used to pay in­ter­me­di­aries who ne­go­ti­ated the bribes in the three coun­tries, ac­cord­ing to the plea agree­ment. Mem­bers of the con­spir­acy, who are not iden­ti­fied by name, would ne­go­ti­ate the pay­ments by com­pos­ing draft mes­sages in a U.S.-based email ac­count for which they shared the lo­gin and pass­word in­for­ma­tion.

Af­ter a com­pany af­fil­i­ated with Sargeant Ma­rine com­pleted ship­ments of as­phalt to Petro­bras in Au­gust 2010, the af­fil­i­ate’s ex­ec­u­tive emailed Daniel Sargeant stat­ing, “Wow, guess last Brazil trip with crooks paid off. Should go again be­fore con­tract next year gets hot and heavy,” ac­cord­ing to the plea agree­ment.

Sim­i­lar tac­tics were used in Venezuela, whose tar-like crude is among the best in the world for mak­ing as­phalt. Con­fi­den­tial in­for­ma­tion ob­tained through the bribery scheme and which gave Sargeant Ma­rine a com­pet­i­tive edge in its deal­ings with PDVSA af­ter 2015 was called by the code name “cho­co­lates.”

Sargeant Ma­rine was “one of the largest as­phalt providers in the world,” ac­cord­ing the in­dict­ment. But the com­pany is a shadow of its for­mer self amid a sell off of as­sets that fol­lowed a bit­ter, multi-year le­gal fight be­tween Sargeant and his older brother, Harry Sargeant III, for con­trol of the as­phalt trad­ing com­pany started by their fa­ther.

The older Sargeant, a prom­i­nent Repub­li­can donor in Florida, was not named in the in­dict­ment or his brother’s plea agree­ment. Some of the bribes were paid be­fore he was ousted from the fam­ily busi­ness.

Sargeant Ma­rine also ac­knowl­edged pay­ing bribes in 2014 from off­shore ac­counts to an of­fi­cial work­ing for state-run Petroe­cuador, which was look­ing to sup­ply the coun­try with as­phalt.

Sep­a­rately, Javier Aguilar, a for­mer oil trader for Vi­tol, was charged with pay­ing bribes to Petroe­cuador, ac­cord­ing to a crim­i­nal com­plaint also brought by fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors in Brook­lyn and un­sealed Tues­day. Vi­tol, which ac­quired a 50% stake in Sargeant Ma­rine in 2015 for an undis­closed amount, did not im­me­di­ately re­spond to an email seek­ing com­ment.

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