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Miami law firm caught up in Odebrecht scandal

A Colombian prosecutor names Akerman, a prominent Miami law firm, in the Odebrecht laundering investigation.
20 Mar 2017 – 11:20 AM EDT
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Firma constructora brasileña Odebrecht.

A Colombian businessman who pleaded guilty to laundering a $6.5 million-dollar bribe from Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht said the scheme began at the Miami offices of Akerman LLP, according to a Colombian government indictment.

Eduardo Ghysays Manzur admitted that he and his brother met in the Akerman offices with a senior Odebrecht executive and representatives of private banks in the tiny European principality of Andorra to discuss the opening of an offshore company and a bank account. The bribe, eventually paid to Colombia's then deputy minister of transportation, Gabriel García Morales, was laundered through the account of Lurion Trading ILC, a company registered in Panama in January 2010, Ghysays added.

The evidence is part of Operation Car Wash, an extensive anti-corruption investigation in Brazil.

The indictment, revealed at a public hearing in Bogota, does not clarify whether or how much Akerman LLP's lawyers knew about the plan to launder the illegal payments, but this is not the first time the firm's name was mentioned in the Odebrecht corruption scandal.

Two witnesses in the Brazilian probe who pleaded guilty to processing bribes from the construction company alleged that between 2010 and 2011 Akerman's then-lawyer Paulo Miranda participated in a meeting with Odebrecht executives, according to documents obtained by Univision Investiga.

The meeting discussed a financial crisis at the Antigua Overseas Bank (AOB), where Odebrecht had accounts to pay bribes abroad.

Operation Car Wash sparked the biggest corruption scandal in Latin America. Several former presidents and government ministers in several countries are under investigation as a result of statements provided by informants, as well as documents uncovered by Brazilian prosecutors in the company's secret accounts.

Akerman LLP, one of Miami's largest firms with offices in other U.S. cities, confirmed that Miranda worked in that office between July 31, 2000, and April 22, 2011.

"We are aware of the media reports that our offices were supposedly used on one occasion by foreign executives subject to allegations of conspiracy to launder money," a spokesman for Akerman told Univision. "In an abundance of caution, we have looked into the matter, and so far, we have found absolutely nothing."

Former long-time AOB banker Vinicius Veiga Morin, one of Brazil's cooperating witnesses, mentioned Miranda. Veiga confirmed that "Paulo Miranda was present" at several meetings to discuss the bank's liquidity problem. Veiga did not explain what role Akerman's lawyer played in the meetings.

Miranda, who now heads the American Chamber of Commerce in Miami, declined to provide an explanation when Univision sought to contact him.

The Akerman LLP name came to light two weeks ago during the public hearing where a prosecutor read the charges against Ghysays, who is collaborating with Colombian prosecutors.

Ghysays admitted to facilitating the laundering of a $6.5 million bribe paid by Odebrecht to Garcia Morales when he was deputy minister of transportation. He received a commission for his work, he said.

Former vice minister García Morales pleaded guilty to receiving the bribe in exchange for awarding Odebrecht a contract to build Ruta del Sol II, a section of the highway next to the Colombian Atlantic coast.

Ghysays reported to the prosecution he received instructions from Luiz Eduardo da Rocha Soares, also known as 'Toshio,' who then served as director of the Odebrecht Structured Operations Division.

This department was named the "bribe division" by the United States government in a criminal report filed late last year against the construction company. It was filed in the Eastern District Court of New York for violation of the Foreign Corruption Practices Act.

Odebrecht pled guilty and agreed to pay a fine of $3.5 billion.

Without naming da Rocha 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."

According to Ghysays, da Rocha asked him to report to the Ackerman office in Miami to start the process.

The Ghysays brothers appear as beneficiaries of Lurion Trading ILC, the company created in Panama in January 2010, according to the Colombian prosecutor, Amparo Cerón.

The bank account was opened with USB bank in Andorra and funds were later transferred to Wells Fargo of Miami, the indictment added.

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