Authorities raid Maersk offices in Brazil as part of bribery probe

Petrobras office building

Brazilian Federal Police searched offices of A.P. Moller – Maersk in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo on Dec. 18, as part of probe into alleged bribes paid to state-owned oil company Petroleo Brasileiro SA (Petrobras).

Reuters said Maersk was one of the companies targeted for allegedly paying bribes to get an edge in securing shipping contracts with Petrobras, in what it said was the “latest phase of a sprawling graft probe” popularly known as Operação Lava Jato or Operation Car Wash.

Brazilian prosecutors alleged Maersk was involved in paying $3.4 million in bribes related to 11 shipping contracts with Petrobras, worth 592 million reais ($141.07 million), Reuters reported.

Maersk confirmed the raids on its offices and said it would cooperate fully with authorities.

“As this is an ongoing investigation, we are not able to comment further at this point,” the Copenhagen-based carrier said. “We reiterate, as a matter of firm company policy, that A.P. Moller – Maersk works against all types of illegal behavior.”

Maersk met with Brazilian investigators in both 2014 and 2015 over its dealings with Petrobras.

It’s not clear exactly which parts of Maersk are being targeted by investigators or even if they are still part of the company.

For example, Maersk Tankers, which was established in 1928, remained a part of A.P. Moller – Maersk until becoming an independent company in 2017. And Maersk has divested itself of many oil and gas assets and focused more on shipping and logistics industries.

Associated Press reported  that “Maersk and its subsidiaries signed 69 shipping contracts with Petrobras worth 968 million reais ($309 million) between 2002 and 2012, according to a statement from prosecutors. Their initial estimate is that $3.4 million in bribes were paid in connection to 11 contracts. Prosecutors are also investigating two ship brokers.”

According to Reuters, “Companies allegedly bribed Petrobras employees for privileged information on the schedule of ships used to transport oil and derivative products in order to gain an edge in bidding for contracts, federal police said in a statement.”

Just this summer, Maersk’s corruption-fighting efforts were the subject of a positive story on FCPA Blog, a website that features news related to the U.S. Federal Corrupt Practices Act. That article discussed a “Maersk initiative to address the petty bribery that captains have to engage in for their ships to enter and leave port in a timely manner.”

The article explained captains at times “hand over some small gifts to ensure swift passage through the port [rather than] run any risk of delay, which is disproportionately more expensive.”

Maersk recorded what gifts were being asked for and given from each ship at each port and worked with port authorities to gain their support.

“As a result, the number of cartons of cigarettes and bottles of whiskey that captains have to give out has plummeted,” the article explained.

According to an article in the International Financial Law Review, Operation Car Wash started in 2014 as “a routine operation [that] began in Brazil to investigate and uncover relatively minor acts of corruption that saw black market dealers or doleiros use gas stations and car washes — hence the name — in the country to launder profits.”

The article notes it has grown into “one of the biggest — if not the biggest — corruption scandals in history.” Even a television series is built around it.

Among those accused in the scandal were dozens of politicians, including the former president of Brazil, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. In 2018, he was found guilty and sentenced to 12 years in prison for accepting a beachfront apartment by an engineering firm in return for helping them win a Petrobras contract, but he was released last month pending appeals.