By Sabrina Valle and Gram Slattery
RIO DE JANEIRO, Jun 2 (Reuters) – Brazilian authorities are investigating high-ranking officials at Connecticut-based Freepoint Commodities for their alleged role in a bribery scheme involving state oil company Petrobras, according to Reuters could check.
Brazilian federal police suspect that Freepoint sent bribes to Petrobras employees through an intermediary over a period of approximately seven years that ended in 2018.
Reuters reconstructed the alleged operation from three people close to the investigation, who spoke on condition of anonymity, and from hundreds of pages of previously undisclosed court documents filed by Brazilian investigators.
According to sources and court documents reviewed by Reuters, which Brazilian police presented last year to a federal judge overseeing the investigation, at least two high-ranking Freepoint employees are suspected, including Robert Peck, head of the global oil business. of the company, participated in the alleged plot.
Those documents include bank records, invoices, emails and WhatsApp messages exchanged between those allegedly involved, including Peck.
The Brazilian investigation was not previously reported. No charges have been filed and it is unclear if they will be filed. Authorities are investigating Freepoint itself, which could lead to possible fines or other civil penalties if the company is found to have committed any wrongdoing.
In response to questions from Reuters about the investigation in Brazil, a Freepoint spokesman said in an email that the company “is firmly committed to complying with the law in all places where we do business” and declined to comment further.
Freepoint denied requests for Peck to be available for an interview. Peck did not answer the questions Reuters sent him via LinkedIn. A woman who answered the phone at her home declined to comment.
Continue reading the story
Petrobras said in an email that it has “zero tolerance for fraud and corruption,” and that employees involved in irregularities at its trading unit “were immediately fired for just cause in 2018.”
Brazil’s federal police did not respond to requests for comment, and the US Justice Department declined to comment on whether it is investigating the Freepoint matter.
The Freepoint investigation comes as part of a broader offensive by security forces against commodity trading companies implicated in alleged corruption, particularly in Latin America.
Freepoint is the first major US energy operator to have been the subject of a recent investigation in Brazil. The Stamford-based company buys and sells all types of fuel through operations on three continents and employs more than 500 people around the world.
THE ALLEGED SCHEME
The Freepoint investigation is part of a larger one by Brazilian authorities known as “Lava Jato,” which officially ended in February. Some remaining late-stage research, including that of Freepoint, has continued.
At the center of Freepoint’s investigation is a former Petrobras employee named Rodrigo Berkowitz, who previously worked as a fuel salesman for the Brazilian oil giant in Houston.
In February 2019, Berkowitz agreed to plead guilty to charges in the United States of conspiracy to commit money laundering, for taking bribes from fuel trading companies doing business with Petrobras.
Berkowitz, who continues to live in Houston, is awaiting sentencing and collaborating with US and Brazilian authorities in ongoing investigations into the commodities trading industry, according to his attorney Jorge Camara, who declined to comment further.
Berkowitz described Freepoint’s alleged bribery scheme in the presence of US and Brazilian investigators in December 2019, according to court files summarizing his testimony.
Petrobras, the world’s seventh largest oil producer, regularly auctions large shipments of various fuels to ensure it gets the best possible price for its products.
According to Berkowitz’s testimony, he informed Freepoint of the amounts that competitors were offering at those auctions. That knowledge allowed Freepoint to leapfrog the competition, Berkowitz said.
In exchange for that information, according to Berkowitz’s testimony and invoices obtained by Brazilian police and seen by Reuters, the fuel seller received bribes from Freepoint through an intermediary, a businessman named Eduardo Innecco.
Innecco did consulting work for Freepoint from roughly 2012 to the end of 2018, when he abruptly left South America amid concerns that investigators would be approaching, Brazilian police allege in court files reviewed by Reuters.
Through a representative, Innecco declined to comment. He has not been charged with any crime and currently resides in southern Europe, the representative said.
Freepoint allegedly compensated Innecco with commissions that were inflated to cover the cost of the bribes, according to Berkowitz’s testimony, bank records obtained by police and viewed by Reuters, and people familiar with the investigation.
Innecco, in turn, passed those bribes on to Petrobras employees, including Berkowitz, according to the documents. Freepoint funneled nearly $ 500,000 in bribes through Innecco between August 2017 and November 2018 alone, Berkowitz said in his testimony.
Those implicated in the alleged Freepoint scam were aware of the risks they were running as the Lava Jato network expanded, police allege.
On September 1, 2018, Innecco sent a WhatsApp message to Berkowitz, suggesting that he transfer his wealth abroad to protect it from authorities in the event his scheme was discovered, according to Berkowitz’s testimony and a copy of the message reviewed by Reuters.
Three months later, on December 5, 2018, Brazilian authorities issued an arrest warrant for Berkowitz for taking bribes from commodity trading companies.
On December 6, 2018, Innecco flew from his home in Uruguay to Madrid, according to travel records obtained by Brazilian police and viewed by Reuters. Brazilian investigators believe he fled for fear his arrest was imminent and authorities now consider him a fugitive, according to records.
(Reported by Gram Slattery and Sabrina Valle in Rio de Janeiro; additional information by Daniela Desantis in Punta del Este, Uruguay, Dmitry Zhdannikov in London, Gary McWilliams in Houston and Chris Prentice in Washington; edited in Spanish by Daniela Desantis / Gabriela Donoso)