NEW YORK/RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Brazil's J&F Investimentos, parent company of the world's largest meatpacker, JBS SA JBSS3.SA, pleaded guilty to U.S. foreign bribery charges and agreed to pay $128.25 million in criminal fines, prosecutors said on Wednesday.
J&F is paying only half of the $256.5 million fines levied due to settlements made with Brazilian authorities three years ago. Then, J&F paid a record-setting 10.3 billion-real ($1.85 billion) fine in Brazil for its role in corruption scandals that severely weakened then-president Michel Temer.
In Brazil, its top executives have admitted to bribing more than 1,900 politicians to advance their business interests - especially JBS’s expansion - and secure low-cost financing from state-run banks.
Shares of JBS rose more than 9% in late Sao Paulo trading following announcement of the agreement in the United States, which investors hope will allow the company to turn the page on the sprawling corruption scandal.
A U.S. charging document said that between 2005 and 2017 the company conspired to bribe officials to secure financing and "equity transactions" from state-controlled banks BNDES and Caixa Economica Federal, as well as Petros, the pension fund for employees of state-controlled oil company Petroleo Brasileiro SA PETR4.SA.
The bribes J&F executives paid to high-level government officials exceeded $150 million, which generated $178 million in profit for the company, U.S. prosecutors said.
One Brazilian official with “significant influence” over BNDES ensured that the development bank bought some $2 billion in debentures in December 2009, shortly after JBS made a U.S. acquisition, according to the plea deal.
The agreement did not name Pilgrim's Pride Corp PPC.O, but the timeline appears to coincide with JBS's purchase of the U.S. poultry company. On Wednesday, Pilgrim's Pride said it would pay a $110.5 million fine after striking an unrelated plea deal with the Justice Department over price fixing charges on chicken products.
In another episode, a J&F executive bought a $1.5 million New York City apartment through a shell company, then transferred it to a Brazilian official who ensured that Petros did a deal beneficial to J&F, the court documents show.
The documents said two J&F executives and five Brazilian government officials were part of the “pay-to-play” scheme. They did not disclose names.
Joesley Batista, who steered JBS from a Brazilian beef processing firm to a global food conglomerate, and his brother Wesley were arrested in 2017 on obstruction of justice and insider trading charges. They were released in 2018.
Lucio Martins, director of compliance at J&F, which in addition to JBS has investments in pulp paper, cosmetics, energy, media and finance, pleaded guilty to violations of the U.S. Foreign Corruption Practices Act on behalf of the company in U.S. District Court in Brooklyn via video conference.
J&F also agreed on Wednesday to pay $27 million to the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission to settle charges related to the bribery scheme.
($1 = 5.58 reais)
Reporting by Jody Godoy in New York and Sabrina Valle in Rio de Janeiro; Editing by Christian Plumb, Marguerita Choy and David Gregorio
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