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Argentina probes Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht's local unit

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - Argentina is investigating whether the local unit of Odebrecht [ODBES.UL] paid bribes to government officials, an Argentine prosecutor said on Wednesday, deepening the regional fallout from the biggest corruption scandal in Brazil’s history.

The probe laid out by Sergio Rodriguez, the lead prosecutor on public administration investigations, is a further sign of international cooperation in a case that saw a Brazilian court on Tuesday hand down a 19-year prison sentence to the company’s former chief executive officer, Marcelo Odebrecht.

“An investigation is underway,” Rodriguez said in an interview. “We’re looking to determine whether the cartel manoeuvres witnessed in Brazil were replicated here in some form. Odebrecht is one of those implicated.”

The investigator declined to give further details on the probe. The corruption case in Brazil stems from a vast bribery scheme at state-run oil company Petroleo Brasileiro SA, or Petrobras.

A spokesman for Constructora Norberto Odebrecht, known more commonly as Odebrecht Argentina, said that the firm “had not been notified of any judicial process.”

Odebrecht Argentina projects include gas pipelines, highways and waterworks.

Marcelo Odebrecht, who until his arrest last June ran Latin America’s largest construction company, was convicted of bribery, money laundering and organised crime.

His detention put billions of dollars worth of infrastructure projects in the region under fresh scrutiny.

Brazilian police have uncovered evidence that Peruvian President Ollanta Humala may have received $3 million in kickbacks from Odebrecht, federal court filings in Brazil showed. Humala denied taking bribes.

At the time regional interest in the Brazilian investigation exploded last July, Ecuador said it had opened audits of Odebrecht’s contracts. In October, Ecuador’s capital, Quito, awarded a $1.5 billion metro contract to Odebrecht.

Colombia’s vice president warned the company could be banned from public bids for decades.

“This has become a regional investigation, not just a Brazilian one,” Rodriguez said.

The probes have stunned Brazil’s well-connected construction companies. One of the most visible faces of Brazil’s regional diplomacy, they have often beaten Chinese and European rivals for Latin America’s energy and transportation mega-projects.

None has a higher profile than Odebrecht, which accounts for nearly three quarters of infrastructure built by Brazilian companies abroad.

Writing by Richard Lough; Editing by Lisa Shumaker