The world’s biggest oil trading firm faces a large fine after a multi-country investigation revealed it bribed Brazilian, Mexican and Ecuadorian officials with millions of dollars in exchange for competitive advantages, marking a turning point in one of the most significant anti-corruption cases in years.
Vitol Inc., the US affiliate of commodities giant Vitol, will pay nearly $164 million after entering into a Deferred Prosecution Agreement with the US Department of Justice (DOJ), a Leniency Agreement with Brazil’s Federal Public Ministry (Ministério Público Federal - MPF) and a settlement with the US Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC), according to a Vitol press release.
Of the nearly $164 million, $90 million will go to the DOJ, just over $45 million to the Brazilian institution and over $28 million to the CFTC, according to a DOJ news release. The payments resolve all three investigations into Vitol’s bribery schemes in Latin America. The fines, however, are not an admission of criminal liability in either the US or Brazil and no top Vitol executives have been charged.
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Vitol admitted that it and its co-conspirators paid over $8 million in bribes to at least four officials at Petrobras, Brazil’s state-owned oil company, for confidential information between 2005 and 2014, according to the DOJ. It also admitted that from 2011 to 2014, it bribed at least five other Petrobras officials in exchange for more confidential information that Vitol used to secure oil contracts, the news release stated.
Vitol also admitted to a second conspiracy occurring in Mexico and Ecuador, where from 2015 to 2020, it paid over $2 million in bribes to officials in both countries, again for confidential information aimed at obtaining and retaining business in connection with the purchase and sale of oil products.
Vitol employees variously concealed the schemes using intermediaries, shell companies, offshore bank accounts, fake consulting agreements, fake invoices, alias email accounts and even code names, such as “Batman,” “Popeye,” “Tiger,” “Dolphin” and “Phil Collins," according to the DOJ.
InSight Crime Analysis
This landmark case highlights two important aspects. First, the corruption model of bribing officials to secure public contracts extends far beyond the well-known Odebrecht scandal and, second, anti-graft probes like Brazil’s “Lava Jato” are showing broader results in going after the companies involved.
It is important, however, not to overestimate the impact of the $164 million in fines levied against Vitol. Bloomberg estimated that Vitol’s profits for 2019 were nearly $2 billion.
This is also Vitol’s first time being linked to bribery. In 2007, Vitol pled guilty in a US court to grand larceny for bribing Iraqi officials $13 million to win oil supply contracts during the United Nations "oil-for-food" program (which ran from 1996 to 2003), for which it was also convicted in 2016 by a French appeal court.
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Furthermore, Reuters reported in September this year that Brazil’s Petrobras had already resumed trading with Vitol as early as June, despite there having been no public lifting of the trade ban imposed by Brazilian prosecutors in 2018 when the bribery probe against Vitol was initiated.
Nevertheless, this is the largest anti-corruption case against a commodity trading house in years. And only last month, Brazilian prosecutors filed a civil lawsuit against both Trafigura, another commodity trading giant, and some of its top executives.
Furthermore, according to Bloomberg, under the Deferred Prosecution Agreement, American prosecutors will only drop charges against Vitol in about three years and only if the company has complied with certain conditions. Vitol’s sanctioning may also push Ecuadorian and Mexican authorities to open their own investigations, as Ecuador’s Attorney General has already confirmed via social media.