Business Day

JPMorgan probed in alleged Petrobras oil bribery scheme

• Group accused of bribing employees of state-run Brazilian firm as investigat­ors focus on commodity trading

- Gram Slattery

Brazilian authoritie­s are investigat­ing whether JPMorgan Chase played a role in an alleged bribery and money-laundering scheme that dated back to 2011 and involved state-run oil company Petrobras, according to documents reviewed by Reuters and two law-enforcemen­t sources.

So far, police have focused their attention on purchases of about 300,000 barrels of Petrobras fuel oil by JPMorgan in 2011, according to the court documents and sources, who requested anonymity to discuss an investigat­ion.

The documents, which were seen by Reuters, include e-mail messages among alleged co-conspirato­rs, witness testimony and bank records. The authoritie­s are working to determine if the alleged bribery continued in subsequent years, the sources said.

The court documents viewed by Reuters include witness testimony from a former Petrobras fuel trader named Rodrigo Berkowitz. In his plea-bargain agreement with Brazilian authoritie­s, he refers to two fuel cargoes that were sold to a JPMorgan unit.

The probe is part of a larger investigat­ion by Brazilian authoritie­s who have been examining wrongdoing in the commodity trading industry for years. As one of the world’s largest banks, JPMorgan would represent the biggest target yet in the investigat­ion.

The country’s federal police are working to determine if JPMorgan secured shipments of Petrobras fuel at artificial­ly low prices by routing bribe payments to employees on Petrobras’s trading desk through a network of middlemen, according to the people and documents that relate to the investigat­ion.

Brazil’s federal police and JPMorgan declined to comment on the investigat­ion. The attorney for Berkowitz did not respond to requests for comment. He has previously confirmed that his client is co-operating with US and Brazilian authoritie­s probing the commodity trading industry.

Petrobras, formally known as Petroleo Brasileiro, said in an email it had “zero tolerance in relation to fraud and corruption”. The company said it had aided Brazilian authoritie­s extensivel­y with various corruption-related probes.

The world’s largest commodity traders, including Switzerlan­d’s Vitol, the world’s top independen­t oil trader, are also facing scrutiny globally after years of investigat­ions into whether they offered bribes to win contracts in several countries in Latin America.


Vitol admitted wrongdoing as part of a 2020 settlement with US and Brazilian authoritie­s and has said it was pleased the matter had been resolved.

No charges have been brought in the JPMorgan probe, and it remains unclear whether any will be.

Elements of the JPMorgan investigat­ion were outlined in previously unreported documents that Brazilian police submitted this year to a federal judge overseeing the probe, including bank records, emails and WhatsApp messages exchanged among alleged co-conspirato­rs, which were reviewed by Reuters. The documents also included internal Petrobras files and testimony from a former Petrobras fuel trader.

Petrobras, the world’s seventh-largest oil producer, routinely buys and sells petroleum products in deals meant to seek the best price possible for the firm.

However, US and Brazilian authoritie­s have alleged that some Petrobras traders took bribes from counterpar­ties for more than a decade through 2018.

In return, these traders allegedly bought fuel at inflated prices or sold it at a discount.

In December, Vitol agreed to pay $164m and admit guilt to resolve allegation­s by US and Brazilian authoritie­s that it paid bribes in Brazil and other Latin American countries between 2005 and 2020.

In November, Brazilian prosecutor­s filed a civil lawsuit against Trafigura, alleging the Geneva-based trader and at least two subsidiari­es paid Petrobras employees more than $1.5m in bribes in 2012 and 2013.

Trafigura has consistent­ly denied the allegation­s levelled by Brazilian authoritie­s and has said that outside counsel it hired “found no basis to conclude that Trafigura’s current management were involved in, or had knowledge of, alleged improper payments to Petrobras”.

Reuters reported in recent months, citing law enforcemen­t sources and Brazilian court documents, that US and Brazilian authoritie­s were also probing Connecticu­t-based trading house Freepoint Commoditie­s for its dealings in Brazil from roughly 2012 to 2018.

A Freepoint spokespers­on wrote in an email at the time that the company was “strongly committed to following the laws everywhere we do business”. The company declined further comment.

Brazilian investigat­ors have not yet shared their findings regarding JPMorgan with US authoritie­s, the sources added, though they are likely to do so if the probe advances.

Among the matters Brazilian authoritie­s are trying to determine is the timeline of the alleged JPMorgan bribery operation.

JPMorgan largely exited physical commodity trading in 2014, selling its operations to Swiss trader Mercuria for $3.5bn in an all-cash deal.

It is not clear if the alleged bribery occurred up to that date or if the alleged wrongdoing was limited to deals executed in 2011.

Last year, the bank agreed to pay more than $920m and admit wrongdoing to settle US market manipulati­on probes into its trading of metals futures and Treasury securities.

In 2013, shortly before the sale of its physical commoditie­s unit, the bank agreed to pay $410m to settle allegation­s of power market manipulati­on in California and the Midwest. /Reuters

 ?? /Reuters ?? In focus: JPMorgan Chase is being probed over purchases of about 300,000 barrels of Petrobas fuel oil.
/Reuters In focus: JPMorgan Chase is being probed over purchases of about 300,000 barrels of Petrobas fuel oil.

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