Father and Son Suddenly Die in Bizarre Twist to Colombia Bribery Case

(Bloomberg) -- By the time he appeared on Colombian television Monday night, Jorge Enrique Pizano was dead.

He’d prerecorded the interview, he said into the camera, because as an auditor who’d flagged suspicious payments in a major infrastructure project, he was the object of a plot.

After Pizano’s heart attack death, his son Alejandro Pizano Ponce de Leon arrived from Spain. At the family house outside Bogota where his father had died, Alejandro took a sip from a bottle of water on his father’s desk, got violently ill and died of cyanide poisoning on the way to the hospital.

The attorney general’s office, which confirmed the deaths and the poisoning, said on Tuesday it’s opening a criminal investigation.

Key Witness

Pizano was a key witness in one of the country’s biggest corruption cases. His death, like that of his son, comes weeks after the case’s lead prosecutor suffered a serious car accident in Chile.

The case is part of one of the largest international graft probes in corporate history. Brazilian infrastructure giant Odebrecht doled out payments to politicians and government officials that helped it win contracts to build power plants, highways, airports, dams and other public works, mostly in Latin America. It reached a plea agreement with the U.S. Justice Department in December 2016 in which it admitted to paying bribes across the region.

Pizano was hired as an auditor by a subsidiary of Grupo Aval, Colombia’s largest banking group. He discovered suspicious payments at a portion of a $2.5 billion highway Odebrecht and Grupo Aval were building and believed he was a target. He had “become uncomfortable for many people,” he said in the TV interview with Noticias Uno, dressed in a blue button down Oxford and dark vest.

In a statement, Grupo Aval said it supports and is cooperating with the investigations. It added that the allegations raised by Pizano in the Monday interview were “not new” and that when he flagged payments as suspicious in 2015 there was no indication that they were bribes.

Aval also said it was a victim of Odebrecht’s scheme and rejects “any claim that purports to point out that Grupo Aval knew, before December 21, 2016, that Odebrecht had made bribe payments.”

Odebrecht has not commented on the Colombian bribery case and had no immediate comment on the deaths.

Cyanide Poisoning

Because Pizano was middle aged and had suffered from cancer, his death last Thursday didn’t instantly raise many suspicions. But his son’s death has caused a stir. The attorney general’s office said a coroner’s exam shows Alejandro to have died from cyanide poisoning. It quoted people close to the family saying he drank the water from his father’s desk before getting sick and dying.

The probe into Odebrecht’s bribery scheme has dragged on for two years in Colombia, even as other Latin American countries settled with the Brazilian behemoth. Prosecutors say the company paid at least $32.5 million in bribes in the country to win six contracts from 2009 to 2014. Dozens of people have been implicated in the scandal.

A spokesman for the attorney general’s office said the prosecutor who was injured in the car crash in Chile, Amparo Ceron Ojeda, has been released from the hospital.

Father and Son Suddenly Die in Bizarre Twist to Colombia Bribery Case

Jorge Pizano had audited Ruta del Sol II, a project to construct part of a 621-mile highway connecting the center of Colombia with the Caribbean. Odebrecht partnered in 2010 with a subsidiary of Grupo Aval and a family-held construction company called Solarte Group on the project.

“Fake Contracts”

Pizano began to sound the alarm over what appeared to be fake contracts as early as 2013 though he didn’t realize at first that the payments were bribes.

One of the payments he flagged was a $2.7 million deposit made in June 2015 to a Panama account held by Consultores Unidos Colombia Panama SA, whose legal representative, Eduardo Zambrano, was arrested last year in connection with the Odebrecht bribery probe. He has pleaded guilty to charges of “illicit enrichment” and is negotiating with prosecutors over other charges, the attorney general’s office said.

Pizano told Bloomberg he had secretly recorded conversations with Nestor Humberto Martinez, then a legal adviser to Grupo Aval, and now Colombia’s attorney general. In those conversations, Pizano raised questions about the suspicious payments.

In a statement, Martinez said that, at the time, Pizano didn’t know whether those payments were bribes and he took the information to company officials who investigated. Martinez has recused himself from the Odebrecht investigation because of his earlier work as a lawyer for Grupo Aval.

Wanted to Leave Country

Pizano had said he planned to release more information soon and had set another meeting with Bloomberg for the day after he died. He planned to leave the country soon and would then speak more freely.

His son Alejandro, an architect who was living in Barcelona, had returned for the funeral when he drank the cyanide-laden water on his father’s desk.

The bizarre turn of events adds questions to a case that has become a prolonged headache for Grupo Aval, a financial conglomerate that holds several of Colombia’s biggest banks and is controlled by Luis Carlos Sarmiento, 85, whose estimated net worth of $11.1 billion makes him Latin America’s sixth-richest person. Its subsidiary Corficolombiana held a 33 percent stake in the Ruta del Sol II project.

Aval has seen its shares underperform amid fears the investigation could widen. Its preferred shares have fallen 3 percent since Odebrecht struck its Justice Department deal in December 2016. Stocks of peers Bancolombia SA and Banco Davivienda SA rose 16 and 15 percent, respectively, over the period.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.