Ex-SBM executives plead guilty in U.S. to Petrobras bribe charges

(Reuters) - Two former executives at Dutch oil services company SBM Offshore NV have pleaded guilty to U.S. charges that they participated in a scheme to bribe officials at three foreign state-run oil companies, including Brazil’s Petrobras.

Anthony Mace, SBM’s chief executive officer from 2008 to 2011, pleaded guilty on Thursday in federal court in Houston in one of the first U.S. Justice Department cases filed against individuals related to bribery allegations involving Petroleo Brasileiro SA, also known as Petrobras.

The plea by Mace, 65, to one count of conspiring to violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act came after a former sales and marketing executive at a SBM U.S. subsidiary, Robert Zubiate, pleaded guilty on Monday, prosecutors said.

Lawyers for the two men did not respond to requests for comment and neither did SBM or Petrobras.

Mace’s plea came after SBM on Monday said it had set aside $238 million amid advanced discussions to resolve a U.S. probe into improper payments to foreign government officials.

Prosecutors said that after becoming chief executive, Mace joined a scheme that began in 1996 to pay bribes to officials at Petrobras, Angola’s state-owned oil company Sonangol and Equatorial Guinea’s GEPetrol.

Prosecutors said Mace authorized paying $16 million to five people listed on a spreadsheet despite being aware of a high risk they were Equatorial Guinean officials or people accepting money on their behalf.

Mace also deliberately avoided learning whether the ultimate recipients of certain payments he authorized were to Petrobras officials, prosecutors said.

Mace, a British citizen, is scheduled to be sentenced on Feb. 2. Zubiate, who was based in Texas and California while with SBM, is scheduled to be sentenced on Jan. 31.

Petrobras has been at the center of Brazil’s largest ever corruption scandal amid investigations into a political kickback scheme involving contractors.

SBM previously in 2014 agreed to pay $240 million to settle a Dutch inquiry into improper payments to officials in Angola, Brazil and Equatorial Guinea.

SBM said at the time, the U.S. Justice Department said it was closing a related probe. But the department reopened the investigation after Brazilian prosecutors in 2015 charged a former U.S. employee, SBM said on Monday.

SBM last year had also set aside $280 million to settle related issues in Brazil. But it announced on Monday that the Brazilian case remained unresolved.

(This version of the story has been refiled to correct day Robert Zubiate pleaded guilty to Monday in third paragraph)

Reporting by Nate Raymond in Boston; Editing by Leslie Adler and Diane Craft