Three global oil trading companies with strong ties to the UK face being dragged into Brazil’s “Car Wash” investigation, after a report raised questions about their connections to businessmen named in the vast corruption scandal.
Vitol, Glencore and Trafigura, which boast combined annual revenues of more than half a trillion dollars, feature in a report by the campaign group Global Witness that uncovers links to men accused or convicted of involvement in the bribery scandal.
The Car Wash controversy has had seismic effects in Brazil, toppling one president and leading to the imprisonment of another, as well some of the country’s most prominent business figures.
It involved executives from the state oil company, Petrobras, who were found to have pocketed kickbacks on multi-billion-dollar deals arranged by intermediaries – with some of the money routed to political parties.
Global Witness has called on the UK’s Serious Fraud Office and the US authorities to investigate alleged ties between businessmen named in the Car Wash scandal and the three oil trading giants.
The campaign group said its analysis of court documents and testimony indicated the firms had questions to answer over their potential links to the scandal.
Each of the three companies said there was no evidence to suggest any wrongdoing on their part.
The report’s findings regarding the commodity trading house concern payments to two men.
One of them, a Swedish businessman, Bo Ljungberg, was accused of being part of a group known as Brasil Trade and charged with being a member of a criminal gang, paying bribes and money-laundering.
A key member of Brasil Trade was Jorge Luz, who was sentenced in October 2017 to 13 years and eight months in prison for his part in orchestrating bribes worth $20m.
Nicknamed the “Deacon of Bribes” by the Brazilian media, Luz testified in a police deposition that Ljungberg was also part of the group. Ljungberg is yet to enter a plea but has denied involvement.
While Vitol was not involved in that case, it has acknowledged it paid Ljungberg to act as an “agent”, tasked with identifying oil deals, but said its relationship with him was “compliant with all relevant legislation”.
Vitol also did business with a man called Nelson Ribeiro, via its half-owned UK subsidiary Cockett Marine, which paid the Brazilian $8.2m.
Ribeiro is under investigation separately for allegedly funnelling $5.7m of bribe money from the Brazilian engineering firm Odebrecht to the Petrobras executive Paulo Costa. Costa was jailed for 12 years for accepting tens of millions of dollars in bribes, some of which he kept stashed in hollow furniture.
Court documents show that between February 2009 and November 2012, Cockett Marine paid $8.2m to two offshore companies owned by Ribeiro, $1.3m of it being transferred after Vitol bought its 50% stake.
Federal police wrote: “The transfer of resources of a large company that maintains billion-dollar contracts with Petrobras directly to offshore accounts belonging to a professional money launderer seems strange.”
Vitol said Cockett Marine’s arrangements with Ribeiro’s companies pre-dated its purchase of a stake in the firm, adding that its chief financial officer terminated the arrangement in November 2012. Vitol denied any impropriety, saying Cockett Marine had co-operated with Brazilian authorities and no charges had been brought against it.
Contacted by Global Witness, Ribeiro said the investigation would show that his involvement was “non-existent”.
Vitol’s largest rival, Glencore, is headquartered in Switzerland but arranges global oil deals via its office in London’s Mayfair.
It is also named in the Global Witness report over links to Brasil Trade through one of its alleged members, Luiz Andrade.
Andrade has been charged with receiving thousands of dollars from Jorge Luz, and then passing money on to a senior Petrobras official. He has yet to enter a plea.
Documents gathered by police and dated December 2010 suggest that Andrade and fellow alleged members of Brasil Trade discussed doing business with Glencore.
The company said an internal review had found that it had an “agreement” with Andrade, related to the “purchase of a fuel oil cargo from Petrobras International Finance Co in 2011.”
Glencore also worked with a shipping company whose owner is under investigation by Car Wash prosecutors.
Between 2010 and 2014, Glencore’s UK subsidiary Ocean Connect Marine (OCM) made at least 121 payments worth $2.1m to Seaview Shipping, also UK-registered.
Seaview is owned by Konstantinos Kotronakis and his son Georgios, a UK resident with an apartment in in one of London’s most glamorous developments.
Konstantinos Kotronakis has been under investigation since 2017 for allegedly running a bribery scheme involving the passing of inside information obtained from Petrobras executives to five shipping companies, helping them win contracts worth a combined $900m.
Georgios Kotronakis visited Petrobras in February 2011, according to guestbook records, representing Ocean Connect Marine.
Car Wash prosecutors claimed the “probability was high” that payments from Ocean Connect Marine were used “to corrupt Paulo Roberto Costa” and other Petrobras officers.
A legal representative of the Kotronakises said neither man had been charged and that Georgios was “not the focus of any investigation”.
Glencore said there was no evidence that it or OCM had paid bribes, adding that Seaview was a “bona fide” ship broking company.
It said there was no “credible evidence” to suggest that any Glencore-related entity made corrupt payments.
A third company with strong ties to London, Trafigura is perhaps best known for its role in a 2006 scandal when more than half a million litres of toxic waste was dumped in the Ivory Coast.
Trafigura has also been linked to the Car Wash investigation by new information.
Documents presented to court indicate that Jorge Luz discussed with Petrobas executive Paulo Costa a “proposal from Trafigura”, under which it would loan Petrobras money in exchange for discounted oil.
Petrobras executives rejected the plan according to the same document.
But when Global Witness submitted freedom of information requests asking for details of the alleged proposal, the company refused, saying it could not hand over documents because Trafigura was the subject of an investigation by federal police.
Trafigura told Global Witness the proposal did not result in any agreement and that Jorge Luz was not retained to lobby for them.
They added that the Global Witness report was a “recycling of ambiguous commentary and conjecture” and included “no substantiated evidence of any wrong doing by Trafigura”.
The company declined to say whether it was under investigation in Brazil.
The head of the Car Wash task force, Deltan Dallagnol, said the potential involvement of Trafigura and Glencore were “two lines of investigation that we are still developing”.
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