BRASILIA (Reuters) - Engineering conglomerate Odebrecht took out full-page advertisements in Brazil’s main newspapers on Friday to apologise to Brazilians for its involvement in the country’s biggest ever corruption scandal.
The apology by Latin America’s largest engineering firm was received with scepticism in a country with a history of political corruption and crony capitalism, and many Brazilians expressed their anger at the company on social media.
In a long-awaited leniency deal, the family-owned firm signed a 6.7 billion real ($1.94 billion) agreement with prosecutors on Thursday admitting guilt and offering information on bribes paid. More than 70 of its executives, including family patriarch and Chairman Emilio Odebrecht and his jailed son and former CEO Marcelo Odebrecht, have agreed to make plea statements.
The bargain will allow Odebrecht SA [ODBES.UL] to return to bidding for public works projects from which it was banned for its role, along with other engineering companies, in the massive bribe and kickbacks scheme centred on state-run oil company Petrobras (PETR4.SA).
The deal also has Brazil’s political establishment on edge as plea statements are expected to name as many as 200 politicians who allegedly received graft money from the company. Prosecutors said Odebrecht had an office dedicated to paying bribes.
“Odebrecht recognises that it took part in improper practices ... we connived with such practices and did not fight them as we should have ... It was a big mistake,” the company said in its ad, vowing to mend its ways and turn the page.
Odebrecht is working on revamping its compliance rules that could lead to the appointment of more independent board members and tougher oversight of the family that controls the conglomerate and its 15 subsidiaries, two sources briefed on the plan told Reuters.
The leniency deal, which spreads the fine payment over 20 years, will give Odebrecht a financial breather and help it restructure debt-burdened businesses and revive a shrinking pipeline of projects at its flagship engineering unit.
Some Brazilians were not so forgiving.
“No, you committed CRIMES! They were not mistakes! I won’t forgive them! They helped dilapidate the country. They should pay,” wrote Vicki Nox (@VickiNox)in a Twitter message.
“How many hospitals, homes, ambulances can be bought with ‘Sorry, we made a mistake’?” tweeted Laiza Galvão (@LaizaGalvao).
The political fallout from the Odebrecht bargain for the scandal-plagued government of President Michel Temer has yet to be felt, but the deal is expected to provide evidence implicating numerous members of his ruling PMDB party and even Cabinet ministers who received campaign donations from the firm.
Brasilia is bracing for the publication of damaging details from Odebrecht’s plea statements, which are expected to be leaked in dribs and drabs to the media.
In a first taste, the Estado de S.Paulo newspaper reported that Marcelo Odebrecht told prosecutors former leftist President Dilma Rousseff, who was ousted in May, knew all about the Petrobras graft scheme but never asked for a penny for herself.
Rousseff was impeached on charges unrelated to Petrobras, for illegally using money from state banks to bankroll public spending. She has repeatedly denied any wrongdoing.
O Globo newspaper reported that another Odebrecht executive told prosecutors two members of Temer’s Cabinet, his chief of staff Eliseu Padilha and infrastructure investment secretary Wellington Moreira Franco, received payments in return for resolving issues in the company’s interest.
O Globo, which did not explain how it had obtained the information, said Padilha and Moreira Franco asked Odebrecht for the money in the name of Temer’s PMDB party.
Moreira Franco said in a statement that the executive was lying. A Padilha aide did not respond to a request for comment.
Additional reporting by Guillermo Parra-Bernal; Editing by Frances Kerry and Tom Brown