Ex-Embraer executive pleads guilty to U.S. corruption charges

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A former executive at Brazilian aircraft maker Embraer SA pleaded guilty on Thursday to U.S. charges that he arranged a bribe to an employee of Saudi Arabia’s state-owned Saudi Aramco to secure a contract for the sale of three jets.

Colin Steven, 61, entered his plea before U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan in Manhattan. He said at the hearing that others at Embraer had approved of the payment and that he had agreed to cooperate with U.S. prosecutors.

Steven, who was charged with violating the U.S. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, wire fraud, money laundering and conspiracy, was released on bail following his court hearing, allowing him to return to Dubai, where he lives.

Steven is tentatively scheduled to be sentenced on June 21. The most serious charges against him carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison.

According to court documents, Steven, who was a vice president of sales, began discussing a possible sale of three jets to Saudi Aramco in 2006.

He admitted Thursday that in 2009, he met in London with Mazen Snobar, a Saudi Aramco employee, who told Steven that Saudi Aramco would buy new jets, rather than used ones as previously discussed, if he personally received payment.

Steven admitted in court on Thursday that he agreed to arrange a $1.65 million payment from Embraer to Snobar to seal the deal. He said he covered up the nature of the payment by making it through a South African company, purportedly for work on a real estate transaction, even though the South African company did no work and simply funneled the money to the Saudi Aramco employee.

Steven also admitted that he arranged for a $130,000 kickback to be sent from the South African company to himself, and falsely claimed while being interviewed by a U.S. law enforcement official that the payment related to a real estate deal.

Embraer agreed in October 2016 to pay $205.5 million to settle a six-year corruption investigation by U.S. and Brazilian authorities.

The company said at the time that the investigation involved the sale of three E170 jets to Saudi Aramco for about $93 million, as well as deals in India, Mozambique and the Dominican Republic.

Embraer spokesman Daniel Bachmann said Thursday that the company was not involved in the U.S. investigation of individuals.

“From the beginning, Embraer treated the matter seriously and fully cooperated with the investigation” into the company, Bachmann said.

Reporting by Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Nick Zieminski