(Updates share prices; adds comment from SEC in paragraph 7 and from Petrobras executive in paragraph 16)
By Carolina Mandl
SAO PAULO, Sept 27 (Reuters) - Petróleo Brasileiro SA will pay an $853.2 million fine to settle charges that former executives and directors of the state-run Brazilian oil company broke U.S. anti-corruption laws by bribing politicians and then seeking to conceal the payments, the U.S. Justice Department (DOJ) said on Thursday.
Shares in Petrobras, as the company is known, were up 6.3 percent in afternoon trading, helped by the latest milestone in turning the page on the landmark “Car Wash” investigation, which ensnared senior executives and high ranking politicians in Latin America’s largest economy.
The state oil company was the initial epicenter of that probe, which found evidence that political appointees on its board and elsewhere handed overpriced contracts to engineering firms in return for illicit party funding and bribes.
“Executives at the highest levels of Petrobras - including members of its executive board and board of directors -facilitated the payment of hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes to Brazilian politicians and political parties and then cooked the books to conceal the bribe payments from investors and regulators,” U.S. Assistant Attorney General Benczkowski said in a statement.
Because Petrobras securities trade on U.S. markets, regulators and prosecutors in the United States joined the investigation, alleging that related accounting fraud at Petrobras violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA).
The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) said that Petrobras had inflated its assets by about $2.5 billion.
“Petrobras fraudulently raised billions of dollars from U.S. investors while its senior executives operated a massive, undisclosed bribery and corruption scheme,” said Steven Peikin, co-Director of the SEC Enforcement Division. “If an international company sells securities in the United States, it must provide truthful information about its business.”
Petrobras said in a statement that it had acknowledged responsibility for “violations of books and records and internal controls provisions.” The executives at fault have already left Petrobras, the company said, noting that the company did not admit wrongdoing to the bribery allegation.
Under the agreement, which settles the FCPA case, Petrobras will deposit $682.6 million, or 80 percent of the penalties, in a special fund in Brazil, with the rest of the fine being split between the DOJ and the SEC.
Brazilian federal prosecutors will determine how Petrobras should allocate the funds in Brazil between social and educational programs in a future agreement.
Petrobras said in a statement that the deal “puts an end to the uncertainties, risks, burdens and costs of potential prosecution and protracted litigation in the United States.”
The oil company will book a charge of 3.6 billion reais in the third quarter - the local currency equivalent of the penalty - in the latest in a series of Car Wash-related payouts, which also included a $2.95 billion payment to settle a U.S. class action corruption lawsuit earlier this year.
Although Petrobras had not already provisioned for the U.S. settlement, XP Investimentos’ analyst Gabriel Francisco said the penalties will not seriously hurt the company.
“The fines will not hinder Petrobras’ plans of reaching a net debt of $69 billion by year-end, as it has a comfortable cash position” said the analyst. “The deal means the end of a chapter.”
Despite the settlements with U.S. authorities and shareholders, Petrobras still faces other demands for compensation related to the corruption scandal.
Earlier this month, a Dutch court ruled that Petrobras shareholders will have their complaints heard.
Argentine investors also initiated this month an arbitration proceeding against the firm for losses related to the corruption probe.
Rafael Mendes Gomes, executive director of governance at Petrobras, said in an interview that admissions made by the oil giant as part of the settlement would not necessarily be used against it in the outstanding class action suits.
Additional reporting by Alexandra Alper in Rio de Janeiro; editing by Christian Plumb, Steve Orlofsky and Marguerita Choy