Antigua PM fires diplomat amid bribery scandal

Prime Minister Gaston Browne, of Antigua and Barbuda, addresses the Climate Summit at United Nations headquarters, Tuesday, Sept. 23, 2014.
Associated Press / Richard Drew, File

Antigua and Barbuda Prime Minister Gaston Browne has fired one low-level diplomat and has threatened to fire another more senior one in the spill-off to an international bribery scandal, according to reports.

Speaking at his government’s year-end press conference on Wednesday, Browne disclosed that he fired Hon. Consul Louis Franka and asked Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates Casroy James for an explanation, according to the Antigua Observer.

The paper said the prime minister did not give specific reasons for the dismissal of the honorary counsel nor did he indicate why he asked Ambassador James for an explanation.

But the Observer noted that information implicating an Antiguan government official was revealed in a New York court as part of US investigations into a bribery scheme conducted by the Brazil-based construction conglomerate Odebrecht.

The US authorities have not named the two individuals, only describing them as “a consular official” and “an intermediary to a high-level official”, the Observer said.

It said the $3 million bribe was allegedly paid in exchange for the official’s promise not to provide international authorities with banking records revealing illicit payments from Odebrecht.

“Prime Minister Gaston Browne says contrary to reports on social media, he has not received any bribes,” the Observer said.

The New York Times reported on Dec. 21 that Odebrecht and its affiliated petrochemical firm, Braskem, pleaded guilty in Federal District Court in Brooklyn to charges that they paid hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes over the years.

Together, the companies will pay at least US$3.5 billion in penalties in a case brought by authorities in the United States, Brazil and Switzerland, said the Times, adding that “it is the biggest penalty for a violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act of 1977, surpassing a US$800 million penalty paid by Siemens in 2008 to authorities in the United States.”

American officials said that their investigation was continuing and that individuals could also be prosecuted, according to the Times.

It said the settlement followed a broad investigation in Brazil into corruption at Petrobras, the state-owned oil company, “that plunged the country into political crisis and spurred protests that led to the ouster of President Dilma Rousseff.”

While not implicated, the Times said Rousseff was convicted by Brazil’s senate in a separate matter — “the plunge in popular support paved the way for her impeachment in August.”

Odebrecht, which built the Miami International Airport and has operations in 27 countries, including the United States, China and Venezuela, has been accused of colluding with Petrobras executives and other contractors, as well as Braskem, to take more than a billion dollars in kickbacks from the oil company, the Times said.

Under the terms of the agreement with prosecutors, Odebrecht has said it will pay US$2.6 billion, while Braskem has agreed to pay US$957 million.

The Brazilian investigation into Petrobras, called “Operation Carwash,” a reference to a service station that laundered money, “has shaken the political establishment to the core,” according to the Times.

It said the authorities there have secured 112 convictions of 83 people ensnared in the investigation, including executives of Odebrecht.

The scandal has left Brazil’s oil industry bereft of investment during the country’s worst economic crisis in decades, the Times said.

“Odebrecht and Braskem used a hidden but fully functioning Odebrecht business unit — a ‘Department of Bribery,’ so to speak — that systematically paid hundreds of millions of dollars to corrupt government officials in countries on three continents,” said Sung-Hee Suh, the deputy assistant attorney general of the criminal division of the Justice Department.

“Such brazen wrongdoing calls for a strong response from law enforcement, and through a strong effort with our colleagues in Brazil and Switzerland, we have seen just that,” Suh added.

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