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Vitol-backed Cockett targeted by Brazil's Car Wash corruption probe

Sabrina Valle
·3 min read

By Sabrina Valle

RIO DE JANEIRO, Nov 26 (Reuters) - Brazilian police carried out search warrants on Thursday as part of a growing graft probe into the global maritime fuels market, after three executives linked to Dubai-based Cockett Marine Oil Ltd admitted to bribing a Petrobras employee for sweetheart deals, court documents show.

The raids are the latest development in a six-year corruption investigation known as Car Wash, which started with fraudulent contracts between Brazilian engineering firms and Petroleo Brasileiro SA, as the state-controlled oil producer is known, before expanding through energy supply chains internationally.

Court documents made public on Thursday included search warrants against a former Petrobras executive, approved based on plea-bargain testimony from three executives connected to Cockett Marine Oil - owned 50% by Vitol SA, the world's largest commodity trading firm, and 50% by logistics company Grindrod .

The executives told prosecutors in Brazil they had paid $2.2 million in cash between 2009 and 2015 to a Petrobras employee to be favored in hundreds of supply contracts of bunker and marine diesel with the Brazilian producer, according to court filings.

"The employees associated with wrongdoing have left the company," Vitol said in an e-mailed response.

The trading firm added that it does not tolerate corruption or illegal business practices, and it requires the companies in which it is invested to adhere to this policy and to implement the appropriate policies, processes and controls.

Cockett has appointed a new leadership team and implemented a comprehensive new compliance framework, Vitol said.

Cockett and Grindrod did not immediately reply to emails and calls requesting comment.

The confession by executives linked to a new fuel trading firm in the case is another key step in a branch of the Car Wash probe that sprouted in 2018, when Brazilian investigators began probing opaque deals involving some of the world's largest commodities traders.

The testimony from executives linked to Cockett followed similar collaboration agreements from other traders who admitted to bribing Petrobras officials when employed by Vitol and Trafigura AG, the court documents show.

The trading executives have agreed to collaborate with investigations by prosecutors in exchange for reduced sentences in Brazil. Trafigura has denied wrongdoing in past comments about the case. None of the three firms have been party to the plea bargains.

In October, a former Vitol executive admitted to bribing Petrobras employees to win contracts, providing secret recordings to bolster his testimony.

Brazilian judge Luiz Antonio Bonat made the fresh court documents public on Thursday after he authorized federal police to carry out search warrants targeting a person employed by Petrobras during the period under investigation.

Petrobras said via email that it is a victim of the individuals involved and recognized by local prosecutors as such. The company said it is cooperating with authorities.

Cockett Marine Oil was founded in the United Kingdom in 1979 as an independent specialist marine fuel service provider to the shipping industry, according to the company's website.

The company, which reported $2 billion in annual revenue, has been owned by Vitol and Grindrod since 2012, with offices in the United States, Brazil, South Africa, the Netherlands, Turkey, India, China, Singapore and Australia. (Reporting by Sabrina Valle; Editing by Brad Haynes and Andrea Ricci)