Signage is displayed on a Petroleos Brasileiros SA (Petrobras) fuel pump at a gas station in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photographer: Victor Moriyama/Bloomberg)

Ex-Petrobras Trader ‘Batman’ to Plead Guilty After Oil Scheme

(Bloomberg) -- A former oil trader for Petroleo Brasileiro SA has agreed to plead guilty to a felony in the U.S. while he is sought by Brazilian authorities in their “Carwash” government-corruption probe, a person familiar with the matter said.

Rodrigo Berkowitz, accused in Brazil of belonging to a group of traders who took more than $31 million in bribes, is charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering, according to court papers. Berkowitz, who is based in Houston, is cooperating with U.S. authorities.

Berkowitz isn’t identified by name on the court docket but is the “John Doe” in a pending case before U.S. District Judge Raymond Dearie in Brooklyn, New York, according to the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the matter isn’t public.

Kent Schaffer, a lawyer for Berkowitz, declined to comment.

The news of Berkowitz’s agreement to plead guilty was reported earlier by Reuters.

The 39-year-old former trader, who Brazilian police said hid behind the code name Batman, is accused of accepting bribes from intermediaries for some of the world’s biggest commodity-trading firms, including Glencore Plc, Vitol Group and Trafigura Ltd., between 2011 and 2014 to secure contracts for petroleum products at discounted prices. The three firms haven’t been charged.

Trafigura doesn’t comment on legal matters, the company said by e-mail. A statement on the company’s website said it’s inaccurate to suggest that Trafigura’s current management knew payments to an intermediary would be used to make improper payments to employees of Petrobras.

Vitol said in a statement that it would be “inappropriate” to comment right now but that it has “a zero-tolerance policy” on corruption and “will always cooperate with the authorities in any jurisdiction in which it operates.”

Glencore didn’t return emails seeking comment.

The probe -- begun in 2014 and nicknamed Operation Carwash because some funds were laundered through a service station in Brasilia -- has involved construction companies, banks, shipyards and leading politicians, including Brazil’s former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. State-controlled producer Petrobras, at the center of it all, agreed last year to pay almost $3 billion to compensate U.S. investors after the company’s market value dropped.

Berkowitz’s case could offer insight into the world of commodity trading, where firms buy and sell billions of dollars of raw materials and fossil fuels, often with little direct regulatory oversight. Brazilian police are seeking cooperation from authorities in the U.S., Switzerland, the U.K., the Bahamas and Uruguay. A Brazilian judge issued an arrest warrant for Berkowitz in early December.

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Some of the payments were made to offshore accounts controlled by Berkowitz and his father, who was arrested last year in Brazil. His father confirmed the financial transactions but said he wasn’t aware they resulted from illegal activities, according to a petition filed to a court in Brazil’s Parana state. Former colleagues of Berkowitz in Houston, where he still lives, expressed surprise at the accusations, saying he lived within his means, buying clothes in outlet malls.

Brazil’s investigation shows that in early 2012 Berkowitz bought an apartment in Copacabana, one of the most expensive districts in Rio de Janeiro, for 2.4 million reais, or $1.3 million at the time. He paid in cash, and the purchase was incompatible with his income, “strong evidence” that it was part of a money-laundering scheme, according to Brazilian court documents.

Berkowitz is scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 13 by Dearie, who authorized U.S. Magistrate Judge Steven Gold to handle the plea, according to court papers.

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