(Adds comment by Société Mondiale, share performance, background)
BRASILIA, Nov 8 (Reuters) - Brazil’s telecommunications watchdog Anatel has temporarily suspended two Oi SA board members appointed by minority investor FIA Société Mondiale, on suspicion of participating in meetings and influencing decisions affecting the carrier without the agency’s permission.
Anatel will uphold the suspension of both board members until officials decide whether Société Mondiale requires prior regulatory consent to join the controlling bloc of Oi, Carlos Baigorri, the watchdog’s head of competition, told reporters on Tuesday in Brasilia.
The move came amid speculation that the government is mulling ways to intervene in Oi, which filed for Brazil’s biggest ever bankruptcy protection in June as talks to restructure 65.4 billion reais ($20 billion) of debt collapsed.
Officials allege that Rio de Janeiro-based Oi’s in-court reorganization is making slow progress because of shareholder and creditor rifts. Anatel plans to monitor every board meeting of the company from now on, to ensure Société Mondiale complies with the order, Juarez Quadros, the agency’s president, said.
The Anatel decision could add turmoil to the already protracted process and put at jeopardy the recovery of a carrier that employs some 140,000 people and is the only phone company operating in about one-third of Brazil’s 5,500 municipalities.
In September, Société Mondiale and Oi’s largest shareholder, Portugal’s Pharol SGPS SA, agreed to end their dispute over the future of the carrier. As part of that accord, Pharol agreed to back the appointment of Société Mondiale-backed Hélio Costa and Demian Fiocca as board members in Oi.
Oi’s common shares reversed early gains and posted their biggest slump in almost two months on Tuesday, signaling unease over growing tensions between Pharol, Société Mondiale and the government. Preferred shares shed 5.6 percent to 2.68 reais.
In a statement, Société Mondiale vowed to comply with Anatel’s decision, noting that all shareholders of Oi have the same goals and rights.
Baigorri said Anatel could impose sanctions if evidence emerges that Société Mondiale exerted undue influence on the board prior to the regulator’s authorization. He added that news on Oi’s restructuring process suggested that partners in Société Mondiale, led by Brazilian investor Nelson Tanure, might have done so. Baigorri did not elaborate on that comment.
Juarez Quadros, who only weeks ago took office as president of Anatel, reiterated on Tuesday that the government favors a “market-based solution” to Oi’s woes, while admitting that officials are analyzing different legal alternatives that could facilitate an intervention if necessary.
The government is not considering intervening in Oi at this point, on hopes creditors and shareholders can reach a negotiated solution that involves no state bailout, Communications Minister Gilberto Kassab said. (Reporting by Silvio Cascione; Editing by Guillermo Parra-Bernal, Paul Simao and Lisa Shumaker)