Watchdog probes Swiss banks over links to Venezuela graft case

ZURICH (Reuters) - Swiss financial watchdog FINMA said on Wednesday it is investigating several Swiss banks over whether they followed anti-money laundering rules amid a widening $1 billion graft probe involving Venezuela’s state oil company.

FILE PHOTO - The logo of Swiss Financial Market Supervisory Authority FINMA is seen outside their headquarters in Bern, Switzerland April 5, 2016. REUTERS/Ruben Sprich

A U.S. federal indictment this month accused five former Venezuelan officials of soliciting bribes to help vendors win favorable treatment from Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) and stashing the money in banks, including in Switzerland.

FINMA did not name the banks under scrutiny. A 2015 U.S. indictment in the case said several accounts with Credit Suisse CSGN.S in Switzerland were subject to forfeiture.

“FINMA is in contact with various Swiss banks in connection with the PDVSA case,” the watchdog said. “The agency is checking to what extent Swiss banks are involved and if they fulfilled their regulatory obligations.”

FINMA has been cracking down on Swiss banks’ links to corruption in South America. “In some of these cases, we are also clarifying behavior in connection with PDVSA,” FINMA said.

This month it forced private bank PKB to turn over 1.3 million Swiss francs ($1.39 million) in ill-gotten gains from business linked to Brazilian groups Petrobras PETR4.SA and Odebrecht [ODBES.UL], part of proceedings against more than a dozen Swiss banks.

Contacted on Wednesday, Credit Suisse said it has stringent control mechanisms in place to combat financial crime and that it is committed to following all applicable laws.

Should it discover suspicious activity, “we take prompt and decisive action which will include liaison with applicable regulatory authorities and restrictions of activity”, the Zurich-based bank said in a statement, adding in some cases relationships are terminated.

Credit Suisse Group barred transactions involving certain Venezuelan bonds and is requiring that business with Venezuela’s government and related agencies undergo a reputation risk review, according to an internal memo seen by Reuters last August.

In the PDVSA case, Switzerland in October 2016 sent around $51 million in frozen assets to the United States. []

An additional $67 million remained frozen by the Swiss.

U.S. Department of Justice prosecutors contend the five Venezuelans including a former vice minister of energy, Nervis Villalobos, sought bribes and kickbacks from vendors in exchange for helping them secure PDVSA contracts, among other charges.

Two vendors -- Roberto Rincon, who was president of Tradequip Services & Marine, and Abraham Jose Shiera Bastidas, the manager of Vertix Instrumentos -- have pleaded guilty to conspiring to pay bribes to secure energy contracts. []

Eight others have also pleaded guilty in connection with the U.S. investigation. []

($1 = 0.9371 Swiss francs)

Reporting by John Miller and Angelika Gruber; Editing by Michael Shields and Adrian Croft