February 2, 2016 / 11:27 PM / 4 years ago

Brazil's Petrobras must face U.S. group lawsuits over corruption: judge

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A U.S. judge ordered Petrobras, the state-run Brazilian oil company, to face class-action litigation by investors seeking to recoup billions of dollars in losses stemming from a bribery and political kickback scandal.

The Brazil's state-run Petrobras oil company headquarters is pictured in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, January 28, 2016. REUTERS/Sergio Moraes

In a decision made public on Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff in Manhattan certified two classes of plaintiffs, saying their claims are similar enough to be pursued as groups.

One class bought various Petrobras securities from January 2010 to July 2015 and will be led by Universities Superannuation Scheme of Liverpool, England.

The other bought debt securities from offerings in 2013 and 2014, and will be led by North Carolina’s treasurer and the Employees’ Retirement System of Hawaii.

“Petrobras was a massive company with investors around the globe,” Rakoff wrote in a 49-page decision. “Notwithstanding Petrobras’s size and its numerous and far-flung investors, the interests of the class members are aligned and the same alleged misconduct underlies their claims.”

Class certification can make it easier for investors to recoup larger sums than if they sued individually, though it does not guarantee they will be recover.

Petrobras did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Other defendants include more than a dozen bank underwriters and an affiliate of the auditor PricewaterhouseCoopers. A PwC spokesman could not immediately be reached for comment.

Petrobras, whose formal name is Petroleo Brasileiro SA, has been accused of inflating the value of more than $98 billion of its stock and bonds through years of corruption.

Last April, Petrobras took a $17 billion writedown to account for overvalued assets.

Prosecutors have also said more than $2 billion of bribes were paid over a decade, mainly to Petrobras executives from construction and engineering companies.

The scandal has contributed to a plunge in Petrobras’ market value to below $20 billion from nearly $300 billion fewer than eight years ago, Reuters data show.

Rakoff appointed the law firm Pomerantz LLP to represent both investor classes. It would share in any recoveries.

Petrobras’ fraud “has eviscerated billions of dollars in shareholder value, as well as hobbled the political and economic structure of Brazil,” Jeremy Lieberman, a Pomerantz partner, said in a statement. “Today’s ruling represents a significant milestone in Plaintiffs’ efforts to recoup a significant portion of the losses incurred.”

The case is In re: Petrobras Securities Litigation, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 14-09662.

Reporting by Jonathan Stempel and Nate Raymond in New York; Editing by Chris Reese and Grant McCool

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