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Behind the Fall of Marcelo Odebrecht, Brazil’s Construction ‘Prince’

The Wall Street Journal – 17/12/2015

Por Will Connors e Paul Kiernan

Brazilian building magnate Marcelo Odebrecht was a natural choice to deliver a keynote speech at the international business school he had attended in Lausanne, Switzerland. As chief executive of Odebrecht SA, he ran Latin America’s largest construction firm with a global portfolio that included the $200 million Miami Heat stadium, a $1 billion port project in Cuba and one of Africa’s largest hydroelectric dams in Angola.

Two days before the June event, Brazilian authorities upended Mr. Odebrecht’s travel plans, arresting him on suspicion of skimming money—now estimated as much as $1.8 billion—from Brazil’s state-run oil firm, Petróleo Brasileiro SA. Prosecutors have charged him with money laundering, corruption and organized crime.

Mr. Odebrecht, who remains in custody, has denied wrongdoing. The company, which also denied wrongdoing, said Mr. Odebrecht’s arrest was “unnecessary and illegal” since it was cooperating with investigators.

Mr. Odebrecht, 47 years old, joined the cast of an international drama rocking the highest levels of Brazilian business and government. His firm is among a select group of Brazilian multinationals that have prospered globally by parlaying government connections into public contracts, state financing and taxpayer subsidies, according to analysts and former company executives.

Odebrecht last year had revenues of $46 billion—nearly half from outside Brazil—and employed 170,000 people. In Brazil, the company has built highways, shipyards, airports, subways and venues for the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Globally, the company has landed projects on four continents.

“They are more than a company, they are a symbol of modern Brazil,” said Thiago de Aragão, a consultant at Brasilia-based consultancy Arko Advice.

Prosecutors allege that for at least a decade, beginning around 2003, some of Brazil’s largest construction firms, including Odebrecht, formed a cartel to divvy up work and inflate the price of Petrobras contracts. The companies allegedly bribed Brazilian politicians, political parties and Petrobras insiders, frequently using offshore banks to hide their tracks, according to investigators.

Petrobras said it was a victim of the scheme and has been cooperating with authorities.

The case, nicknamed Operation Car Wash, has yielded more than 100 arrests and more than 30 convictions. Four former Petrobras executives and roughly 50 current and former politicians are under investigation, including the head of Brazil’s senate and speaker of the house. Some defendants are cooperating; others have denied the charges.

Andre Esteves, chief executive of Brazil’s largest independent investment bank, was arrested alongside a ruling party senator in November and charged with conspiring to bribe a key witness in the case. Mr. Esteves, who has denied any wrongdoing, was released from jail Thursday to house arrest.