Vitol in Brazil bribery probe

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REUTERS/Denis Balibouse

SAO PAULO/LONDON (Reuters) – Brazil’s epic “Car Wash” corruption investigation has taken down presidents and elite businessmen, and led to the largest corporate leniency deal ever signed.

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But graft allegations lodged by prosecutors last week against four of the world’s largest oil trading companies – Vitol SA, Trafigura, Glencore PLC and Mercuria Energy Group – have opened an explosive new phase in the long-running probe.

Federal prosecutors allege the European multinationals and some smaller players collectively paid at least $31 million in bribes over a six-year period to employees at Brazil’s state-led oil company Petrobras to sell them oil at sweetheart prices. They said the firms’ top brass had “total and unequivocal” knowledge that they were fleecing Petrobras and that the illicit activity may still be ongoing.

More than 600 pages of legal documents reviewed by Reuters portray what prosecutors describe as a bustling criminal enterprise fueled by creativity, competition and greed. Authorities say the trading companies often used freelance middlemen in an effort to cover their tracks, allowing these businessmen to negotiate deals and pay off Petrobras collaborators using bank accounts in several countries.

Emails obtained by investigators show intermediaries hustling to profit from their connections, authorities said. Some shared spreadsheets divvying up to the last cent their cut of the spoils from deals they allegedly sealed with crooked Petrobras employees.

Prosecutors said the messages also show that rings of middlemen knew about one another and battled fiercely for the favor of the big oil-trading firms. Some discussed their attempts to woo top executives with promises of delivering more shady trades and fatter profits than rivals.

One intermediary griped that Vitol was “not at all sentimental” and would choose whomever could secure them the biggest returns.

“Now you are the flavor of the month, next month there is a new flavor,” the middleman said.

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