FCPA Compliance and Ethics Blog

April 21, 2015

The Petrobras Scandal and Corruption of Political Parties Under the FCPA

7K0A0075When does bribery and corruption move from a business issue to a political issue to a national issue? Why should US companies be held to the gold standard of anti-corruption laws? Should the US government even care if US companies engage in bribery of politicians and political parties outside the US? I pose these questions as we see some of these issues now being played out in real time in Brazil.

Earlier this month, a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) article by Rogerio Jelmayer and Jeffrey T. Lewis, entitled “Brazil Graft Probe Reaches Higher Up” said that “A widening investigation into alleged corruption at Brazil’s state-controlled oil company edged closer to President Dilma Rousseff on Wednesday when police arrested her ruling political party’s treasurer. The official, João Vaccari Neto, was charged with receiving “irregular donations” for the Workers’ Party from some suppliers to the oil company” [Petrobras]. Moreover, one cooperating witness, Pedro Barusco, “told a congressional hearing in March that he amassed nearly $100 million in bribes as a part of the alleged bribery schemes and the Workers’ Party may have received twice as much.”

But the corruption scandal appears to be much broader than simply one politician. Another WSJ article, by reporters Paulo Trevisani and Paul Kiernan, entitled “Brazil Attorney General Seeks Corruption Probe Approval”, said that the Brazilian Attorney General “has asked the Supreme Court for permission to proceed with investigations against an undisclosed number of politicians”. He asked for “28 probes involving 54 persons”. Interestingly, this part of the Brazilian corruption probe is separate and apart from the “team of prosecutors who have been working on the case from the southern Brazilian city of Curitba”. The reason is that under Brazilian law “special treatment is afforded to high-ranking authorities, whose cases my be heard by the Supreme Court.” This anomaly required “any evidence pointing to government officials or lawmakers had to be sent to” the Brazilian Attorney General.

As the corruption scandal continues to morph, allegations have reached the level of last year’s Brazilian Presidential election. Mary Anastasia O’Grady, also writing in the WSJ, in an article entitled “An Escalating Corruption Scandal Rocks Brazil”, said that interviewed defeated Presidential candidate Aécio Neves, head of the Social Democracy Party of Brazil, told her that he lost the election because of “organized crime”. This was not some dark mafia plot but came about from “alleged skimming operations at the government-owned oil company.” She went on to note, “Prosecutors allege that Petrobras contractors were permitted to pad their contracts and remit the excess as kickbacks to the oil company, which passed hundreds of millions of dollars to politician and, more importantly the PT.” The PT is the ruling party currently led by Brazilian President Rousseff.

It has not yet been reported that any US companies are under investigation by the Brazilian Attorney General for the bribing of politicians or a political party such as the President’s Workers’ Party. However, for any US companies that have been engaged in trying to influence elections in Brazil through campaign contributions, the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) specifically incorporates politicians, political parties and candidates for political offices as foreign government officials for purposes of the Act. In the 2012 FCPA Guidance it states, “The FCPA’s anti-bribery provisions apply to corrupt payments made to (1) “any foreign official”; (2) “any foreign political party or official thereof ”; (3) “any candidate for foreign political office”; or (4) any person, while knowing that all or a portion of the payment will be offered, given, or promised to an individual falling within one of these three categories. Although the statute distinguishes between a “foreign official,” “foreign political party or official thereof,” and “candidate for foreign political office,” the term “foreign official” in this guide generally refers to an individual falling within any of these three categories.”

Additionally, politicians and political parties are incorporated into the FCPA through the accounting provisions of the FCPA. As further stated in the FCPA Guidance, “Additionally, individuals and entities can be held directly civilly liable for falsifying an issuer’s books and records or for circumventing internal controls. Exchange Act Rule 13b2-1 provides: “No person shall, directly or indirectly, falsify or cause to be falsified, any book, record or account subject to [the books and records provision] of the Securities Exchange Act.” And Section 13(b)(5) of the Exchange Act (15 U.S.C. § 78m(b)(5)) provides that “[n]o person shall knowingly circumvent or knowingly fail to implement a system of internal accounting controls or knowingly falsify any book, record, or account ….”. The Exchange Act defines “person” to include a “natural person, company, government, or political subdivision, agency, or instrumentality of a government.”

The most well known FCPA enforcement action involving bribes paid to politicians was the Halliburton/KBR enforcement action. For those of you who may have forgotten this case, which has the third highest FCPA fine of all-time, Halliburton subsidiary KBR admitted that a consortium which it led paid Nigerian officials at least $132 million in bribes for engineering, procurement and construction contracts awarded between 1995 and 2004 to build liquefied natural gas facilities on Bonny Island, Nigeria. The consortium was named TSKJ and consisted of subsidiaries of the following entities: KBR; Technip, a French company; ENI, an Italian company; and JGC, a Japanese company. There was also a corrupt agent involved in paying the bribes, Jeffrey Tesler and another Japanese company Marubeni Corporation.


Entity Fine, Penalty and Disgorgement of Profits (in $ millions)
Halliburton (KBR) $579
ENI $365
Technip $338
JGC $218
Marubeni Corp $50
Jeffery Tesler (the Bag Man) $149
Total $1,699


So for those of you keeping score at home, there has been, and could be fines, penalties and profit disgorgement of over $1.699 billion. This figure does not include the amount paid out by these corporations for attorneys’ fees, forensic costs and other professional fees, which can be only speculated about.

 The Petrobras scandal continues to morph and to grow way beyond the bounds of simple commercial bribery. One of the goals in the passage of the Act was to prevent US companies from illegally influencing foreign officials and foreign elections through the payments of bribes. The Petrobras scandal may well demonstrate to the world community how important it is to remember that now is certainly not the time to try and weaken either the FCPA or its enforcement going forward. If there is ever to be a truly level playing field in commerce across the globe, it will be by enforcement of anti-corruption laws such as the FCPA that makes it safe for US businesses to compete on the global stage and compete on the basis of quality, not bribe paid.

But the morphing of the Petrobras bribery scandal into the Brazilian political scene may also demonstrate how commercial bribery can work to corrupt a democratic political system. If the money paid from bribes for commercial contracts worked its way into the Brazilian election, this would be perversion of the democratic process. It is this commercial issue that demonstrates why businesses, particularly US businesses, have a role in the international fight against bribery and corruption. It also seems to me to be a straight line from commercial bribery to political corruption to the explosion of terrorism against such corruption. While the FCPA may not have been passed with this connection to terrorism in mind, it is certainly an important US government tool in that fight as well.

This publication contains general information only and is based on the experiences and research of the author. The author is not, by means of this publication, rendering business, legal advice, or other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such legal advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified legal advisor. The author, his affiliates, and related entities shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by any person or entity that relies on this publication. The Author gives his permission to link, post, distribute, or reference this article for any lawful purpose, provided attribution is made to the author. The author can be reached at tfox@tfoxlaw.com.

© Thomas R. Fox, 2015

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