February 27, 2019 / 11:50 PM / 6 months ago

Exclusive: Petrobras oil trader to plead guilty in U.S. money-laundering case - documents

HOUSTON (Reuters) - A former U.S.-based oil trader sought in Brazil over a multimillion-dollar bribery scheme involving commodities traders Vitol, Glencore and Trafigura has agreed to plead guilty to conspiracy to commit money-laundering in the United States, court records show.

The plea is part of a cooperation agreement by a key figure in Brazil’s “Car Wash” probe into corruption at state-run oil company Petroleo Brasileiro SA, according to people familiar with the matter. That scandal has toppled presidents in two countries and sent more than 130 politicians and businessmen to jail across Latin America.

Rodrigo Garcia Berkowitz, who worked as a trader for Petrobras in Houston until last year, waived an indictment and offered to plead guilty to the charge, according to documents filed in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn. The court accepted the request and set sentencing for Sept. 13.

Berkowitz is among 12 former Petrobras employees and middlemen charged in Brazil in December in connection with a scheme that Brazilian investigators have said offered Vitol, Glencore, Trafigura lower prices for oil and services and then shared in the savings, authorities have said. The activities took place between 2011 and 2014.

Vitol declined to comment on the plea agreement, adding it has a zero tolerance policy for bribery and corruption and cooperates fully with relevant authorities. Petrobras said it fired Berkowitz and is working with prosecutors in Brazil.

Glencore, which could not immediately be reached for comment, has said in the past it was cooperating with Brazilian authorities. Trafigura has said it took the allegations seriously.

The conspiracy to commit money laundering documents do not name Berkowitz. The case is against John Doe, a pseudonym that prosecutors sometimes use to keep the names of individuals involved in an investigation out of the public eye.

But Berkowitz signed his name to an application to plead guilty that was filed with court records. The application was approved by Judge Raymond Dearie, of federal court in Brooklyn.

Kent Schaffer, a top Houston criminal defense attorney who signed court papers to represent John Doe, confirmed that Berkowitz is the individual named in the documents. He declined other comment.

Berkowitz, who is living in the United States, has been cooperating with New York prosecutors who opened a probe into the allegations, the people familiar with the matter have said.

John Marzulli, a spokesman for U.S. Attorney Richard Donoghue, for the Eastern District of New York, declined to comment.

Bribes allegedly paid to Petrobras insiders moved through bank accounts in the United States, Britain, Sweden, Switzerland and Uruguay, Brazilian authorities have said, paving the way for U.S. prosecutors to probe for violations of U.S. money laundering laws.

The U.S. attorneys office for the Eastern District of New York that struck the plea agreement with Berkowitz has worked hand-in-hand with Brazilian prosecutors in the Car Wash probe in the past. In late 2016, they jointly negotiated with construction firm Odebrecht to reach a deal that resulted in a $2.6 billion fine.

Reporting by Gary McWilliams in Houston; additional reporting by Julia Payne in London and Brad Brooks in Sao Paulo; editing by Leslie Adler

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