November 27, 2018 / 9:29 PM / in 17 days

Brazil's Odebrecht 'close' to reaching leniency accord with Argentina

SAO PAULO, Nov 27 (Reuters) - The chief compliance officer for scandal-plagued Odebrecht SA said on Tuesday that the Brazilian conglomerate was negotiating with authorities in Argentina and was getting close to finalizing a leniency accord there.

Olga Pontes, the chief compliance officer, did not provide details on any potential Argentina deal during a briefing she gave journalists in Sao Paulo. Federal prosecutors in Argentina did not respond to a request for comment.

Odebrecht is at the center of the "Car Wash" investigation in Brazil, which U.S. prosecutors say is the biggest political graft scheme ever uncovered.

It involved the payment of billions of dollars in bribes, mostly to former executives of state-led oil company Petroleo Brasileiro, politicians and political parties in return for lucrative contracts. Over 130 top politicians and businessmen have been convicted in the case, including former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva.

"We are at the negotiating table with authorities in Argentina," Pontes said. "A deal is close, but nothing has yet been closed."

Argentina's federal prosecutors office did not reply to a request for comment on any Odebrecht negotiations.

Prosecutors in Argentina and Brazil in August 2017 accused the executive branches in each of their governments of trying to block their cooperation to protect politicians in Argentina who Odebrecht alleges were complicit in graft schemes.

However, Argentina's Congress passed an anti-corruption law in November 2017 allowing for leniency accords and other legal mechanisms to fight graft, which Argentine President Mauricio Macri said was needed to move forward with the Odebrecht investigation.

Last year, Argentina banned Odebrecht from bidding on public works contracts for 12 months, and the company sold its stake in a subway project in Buenos Aires, the capital.

In August, prosecutors in Argentina gained access to a trove of plea-bargain testimony that Odebrecht executives have provided to Brazilian prosecutors about corruption they carried out across Latin America, in the United States and Africa.

Pontes also said that Odebrecht had closed leniency deals in other unnamed countries, but they have not yet been announced as those accords were still under seal.

She said Odebrecht is willing to negotiate and reach deals with any countries where it carried out corrupt practices in the past, and that if a deal is not yet in the works the blame lies with the governments.

For example, Mexican authorities have refused to sign an agreement with Brazilian federal prosecutors to not prosecute Odebrecht officials in Mexico.

Last month, Odebrecht offered to pay $18 million to Mexico and provide information on corrupt acts there if, but only if, the country promised to drop other fines against the company and lift a ban on its ability to sign new contracts with the government there, according to a document Reuters reviewed and a source with direct knowledge of the offer.

Mexican authorities rejected that proposal.

Brazilian prosecutors will only hand over the plea-bargain testimony that nearly 80 Odebrecht executives provided in the past two years if other countries promise to not prosecute Odebrecht executives.

Not facing criminal punishment was part of the record-breaking 6.9 billion reais joint deal Odebrecht signed two years ago with prosecutors from the United States, Brazil and Switzerland.

On Monday, a prosecutor in Peru said that country was also close to signing a leniency accord with Odebrecht. (Reporting by Brad Brooks in Sao Paulo Additional reporting by Nicolas Misculin in Buenos Aires Editing by Leslie Adler)

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