Brazil's Petrobras probe grows with international firms eyed

Thu Jan 15, 2015 7:44am EST
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By Caroline Stauffer

SAO PAULO (Reuters) - A Brazilian police officer investigating a kick-back scheme at state-run oil company Petrobras said the total amount of money involved could exceed $28 billion, making it the country's biggest-ever money laundering probe.

"If you consider the value being investigated, the value of the Petrobras projects, certainly the potential of the investigation is to surpass that value by a lot," Federal police agent Erika Marena said in a rare telephone interview.

Marena, speaking from the southern city of Curitiba where the probe is based, said police are investigating the possible involvement of more foreign companies and 750 infrastructure projects in addition to contracts involving Petroleo Brasileiro SA, as the firm is called formally.

Though she could not yet say exactly how much money may have been laundered in the kickback scandal, she said the case is likely bigger than the nearly $30 billion found to have been illicitly transferred abroad in a separate case between 2003 and 2007. She was also involved in that case, known as Banestado, Brazil's biggest money laundering incident to date.

The investigation has become the biggest crisis yet for President Dilma Rousseff. It has threatened to halt much-needed construction projects due to the alleged involvement of top engineering contractors and has reduced the market capitalization of Petrobras by nearly half in two months.

Marena spoke to Reuters late on Tuesday, before police arrested Petrobras' former international director Nestor Cervero. Prosecutors accused him of continued involvement in corruption and money laundering, although his lawyer said he had committed no crime.

Prosecutors last month charged Cervero with taking kickbacks from Korean company Samsung Heavy industries, which has not responded to requests for comment, and others to secure contracts with Petrobras off the coast of Africa and the Gulf of Mexico.

Marena said other international companies may have been involved as well.   Continued...

A view is seen of the Petrobras headquarters in Rio de Janeiro December 16, 2014. REUTERS/Sergio Moraes