Disgraced construction giant Odebrecht may have carried out illegal activities in the United States, a top Brazilian prosecutor told Univision, in the first official recognition that the tentacles of the massive bribery scandal could extend beyond Latin America.
"There is a very fluid relationship, very close, between U.S. prosecutors and Brazilian prosecutors ... there are some requests [by the U.S. government] and we can help fulfill those requests,'' said Vladimir Aras, the head of the Office of International Affairs of the Attorney General's Office.
Aras was evasive regarding the details of the U.S. cooperation requests at a press conference last week in Brasilia. "For that information to reach the United States it has to be at the request of the Americans, and we will help," he said.
Last year Odebrecht agreed to pay a $3.5 billion fine after it was accused by U.S. prosecutors in New York of running a "bribe division" in violation of the Foreign Corruption Practices Act. Since then the case has remained tightly sealed.
The United States does not appear on a map of countries that have requested collaboration from Brazil, according to documents provided to journalists by the Brazilian Attorney General's office. There are nine requests from Peru, three from Argentina, three from Mexico, two from the Dominican Republic, two from Panama, one from Colombia, one from Ecuador and one from Venezuela.
Odebrecht US, based in the city of Coral Gables, near Miami, has executed multimillion-dollar contracts for engineering public works with authorities in the states of Florida, North Carolina and Texas. Miami-Dade County and the MDX County Transportation Agency have awarded the firm remodeling contracts at Miami International Airport. None of these contracts have come under suspicion for corruption.
The company's U.S. affiliate has been a generous contributor to lobbyists and local election campaigns, according to county records.
Bottom of the sea
The United States' role in the scandal may never be known, as some of the information lies - literally - at the bottom of the ocean, off the Miami coast.
Hilberto Mascarenhas, former director of Odebrecht's so-called "bribe division" - the firm's Structured Operations department - confessed to Brazilian prosecutors that he threw his laptop with all the bribery details into the sea during a visit to Miami.
He told prosecutors that his work computer locked him out after he tried to extract his personal data on an external hard drive when the scandal broke. "It blocked my passwords so I couldn’t turn the computer on," he said, adding that he discarded the laptop in Miami.
Asked where he left it, he replied, "I threw it in the sea."
Brazilian prosecutors had been expected to use the much anticipated press conference last week to reveal the names of foreign government officials implicated in the bribery scandal, but none were named.
"This society, like Brazil's, has the right to know who its thieves are," the president of the Dominican Republic's Alianza Country party, Guillermo Moreno, told reporters.
So far, the only U.S. link to the Odebrecht scandal came after two witnesses collaborating with Brazilian prosecutors named Paulo Miranda, a former employee of the Miami law firm Akerman LLP, as having participated in a meeting to evaluate the operations of a bank that was used to pay bribes.
One of the main Brazilian government witnesses, Luiz Eduardo da Rocha Soares, a former executive of Odebrech, told Brazilian prosecutors that Miranda was instrumental in creating offshore companies that were used to channel the bribes.
Between 2010 and 2011 Miranda met with former executives of the Antigua Overseas Bank (AOB) where Odebrecht held several accounts to pay overseas bribes. Miranda, who has been linked to the Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce, declined to speak to Univision.
“[Antigua Overseas Bank] helped us to open those offshore accounts ... we had a lawyer in Miami who helped us do a lot of it, Paulo Miranda," da Rocha Soares told prosecutors.
An Odebrecht spokesperson in Brazil declined to discuss Miranda's role, saying it was up to judicial authorities "to evaluate the details of specific acts by its executives."
Akerman was also mentioned in connection to a Colombian businessman who pleaded guilty to having facilitated the laundering of $6 million in bribes received by a former Colombian transport minister in exchange for the award of a multimillion dollar contract with Odebrecht.
According to Colombian prosecutors, Eduardo Ghysays, Manzur explained that he and his brother met in the offices of Akerman in Miami with a senior Odebrecht executive and representatives of the private banks of Andorra to discuss the creation of an offshore company and a bank account.
Through the account of a company registered in Panama in January 2010, the bribes were received by then Deputy Minister of Transportation, Gabriel García Morales, added Ghysays.
A spokesman for Akerman said the law firm has found no evidence that this meeting was held in one of its offices.
Without naming da Rocha Soares directly, the U.S. indictment indicated that he participated in meetings in Miami "with other conspirators to plan actions that would be taken in connection with the Operations Division and the movement of criminal proceeds."
The plea agreement with U.S. prosecutors last year also mentions unspecified illegal activities in Miami.
The document states that between 2014 and 2015, Odebrecht had several employees in Miami who carried out actions on behalf of the Structured Operations division that the company had created to channel the payment of bribes.
Aras told reporters last week that Brazil was cooperating with prosecutors in other countries in the region. He said that could include direct agreements between those prosecutors to not go after Odebrecht executives as well as allowing the company to continue operating in those countries.
The Dominican experience
The Dominican Republic is the first country to have adopted this legal strategy despite strong criticism. In return, the construction company pledged to pay a fine of $184 million. "It is the highest (fine) in the region ... the only country that has gotten back twice what they say was paid in bribes," said Dominican President Danilo Medina.
Last week, the Dominican authorities arrested 14 people suspected of participating in Odebrecht's corruption scheme, but the confidentiality of the direct agreements with Odebrecht have generated distrust. "The way this is being handled is political ... to protect the complicity of the current authorities starting with the President of the Republic," said former Dominican deputy Minou Tavarez.
As an example, Tavarez cited Odebrecht's renegotiation of a contract for the Punta Catalina Thermoelectric Power Plant. Despite representing the largest scandal involving the government, it was being covered up, he said.