Latin American prosecutors join forces on Odebrecht bribes

BRASILIA (Reuters) - Prosecutors from 10 Latin American countries will form a task force to share evidence in the investigation of bribes paid by Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht on construction projects across the region, a Brazilian prosecutor said on Friday.

Vladimir Aras, head of international cooperation at the Prosecutor General’s office said the aim is to speed up the direct exchange of information by avoiding bureaucratic hurdles.

Odebrecht, Latin America’s largest engineering group, settled in December with Brazilian, U.S. and Swiss authorities, agreeing with affiliated petrochemical company Braskem SA to a record fine of $3.5 billion. The company admitted to paying bribes to officials in 12 countries, mostly in Latin America, to help secure lucrative contracts.

Aras said prosecutors would be free to question witnesses and defendants in other countries and evidence would be valid across borders.

“Evidence will be exchange rapidly because there will be no intermediaries,” Aras told Reuters.

The agreement was signed on Thursday by top prosecutors from Brasil, Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Peru, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Panama and one European country, Portugal.

Odebrecht said it paid $439 million outside Brazil, with the largest bribe admissions abroad in Venezuela, the Dominican Republic and Panama.

Brazilian prosecutors singled out Panama last year for not helping with their investigation, but Aras said that had changed. “Cooperation has been very satisfactory since last year and we have not had any problems,” he said.

Aras declined to comment on requests for information.

Argentina’s government has asked Brazil to list the Argentines who have been named in the Odebrecht bribery probe and the wider graft and political kickback investigation called “Car Wash” that centers on state-run oil company Petrobras.

A federal judge in Argentina is seeking information from Brazil and Switzerland to determine whether President Mauricio Macri’s spy chief, Gustavo Arribas, took a $600,000 bribe from Odebrecht in 2013 when he was a private citizen.

Aras said Venezuela has started cooperating in the investigation of $98 million in bribes that Odebrecht admitted to paying to government officials and intermediaries to obtain public contracts.

Venezuelan authorities raided the Caracas offices of Odebrecht on Tuesday and have been seeking the arrest on an unnamed person since last month.

Peruvian authorities said on Friday they are seeking $60 million from former government and company officials accused of involvement in bribes paid by Odebrecht.

Former Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo is among eight people accused of being part of the company’s kickback schemes in Peru. Toledo has denied taking bribes but is the target of an international arrest warrant. His whereabouts are unknown.

Reporting by Anthony Boadle; Editing by Mary Milliken