The Bribery Division: A look into Odebrecht’s bribery scandal
An Ecuadorian who relocated to Miami before being convicted in absentia in his home country of extorting bribe money from embattled Brazilian engineering firm Odebrecht S.A. faces a potentially explosive civil lawsuit in South Florida that could add to his woes at home.
Carlos Polit Faggioni was Ecuador’s longtime comptroller, a position that required him to sign off on public budgets and prosecutors said afforded him the ability to demand $10.1 million in payments from Odebrecht S.A.
Juan Carlos Sanchez, the deputy chief of mission at Ecuador’s embassy in Washington, told the Herald earlier this year that Polit faces an extradition request by Ecuador. Coming from Ecuador’s penal division of the National Court of Justice and sent to U.S. authorities by Ecuador’s foreign ministry, the request remains active, Gonzalo Salvador, the ministry’s judicial coordinator, confirmed on Friday.
Recently, the Polits were served papers at a relative’s house in Miami for the civil lawsuit tied to the mushrooming Odebrecht scandal.
Reporters working for months on a collaborative investigative project to decipher leaked documents from Odebrecht’s parallel off-books accounting system can now link Polit’s Miami-based son, John Christopher Polit, to a U.S. shell company that became a pass-through for what Ecuadorian prosecutors consider illicit money.
That company, Venture Overseas LLC, was until recently just one of tens of thousands that enjoy the anonymity of incorporation in Delaware. John Polit was convicted in Ecuador of being an accomplice in connection with his father’s case.
The Polits were the focus of a McClatchy-Miami Herald investigation in March that showed the son had taken on mortgages on several pricey properties in the Miami area, including a luxurious home in Cocoplum, that had earlier been purchased outright.
Venture Overseas was at the end of a chain of financial transfers between anonymous shell companies that began with one controlled by Odebrecht S.A. called Kleinfeld Services. Company officials have admitted Kleinfeld was one of several used in an off-books accounting system called Drousys that was used to, among other things, pay bribes in exchange for public works contracts..
The Polits were convicted in Ecuador in June 2018 on extortion charges that involved receiving bribe money from Kleinfeld. They deny doing any such thing and the conviction is under appeal. They insist they’re the targets of political persecution, and point to an opinion earlier this year from Interpol, the global police agency, that Carlos Polit’s conviction in Ecuador lacked judicial independence.
The underlying registration documents in Delaware for Venture Overseas were obtained by McClatchy, the Miami Herald, el Nuevo Herald and Ecuador’s El Universo, and show it is linked by family to the Polits.
The man who signed the incorporation documents in 2011 was Juan Sarasola Gutierrez — John’s father-in-law, who lives in the coastal city of Guayaquil.
“This company was created by my son-in-law. … I simply collaborated with him,” Sarasola told a reporter from El Universo. “He said he wanted me to figure as a director or manager or whatever it was.”
Sarasola said he knew little more since he wasn’t the true owner.
The former top Odebrecht executive in Ecuador — Jose Conceicao Santos — has testified in court that Polit received $10 million in bribe money, most in cash.
About $1.7 million was deposited in accounts associated with the companies Plastiquim S.A. and Inmobiliaria Cosani, Ecuadorian prosecutors said. And that’s where the civil suit playing out in Miami comes into the picture. The complaint, which names both Polits and Odebrecht as defendants, asserts that the plaintiff had been unknowingly pulled into a money-laundering scheme.
Plastiquim’s owner, Mauricio Neme Machiavello, is suing the Polits and Odebrecht S.A. in Miami, alleging they have tarnished his name and forced the closure of Plastiquim, a company that is in the plastics business.
“In Ecuador, your name is everything,” said Gustavo D. Lage, the Miami-based attorney representing Neme.
Neme acknowledges having received $700,000 from John Polit but said he did not know it was Odebrecht bribe money and instead thought his friend was offering him a low-interest loan when they inked a contract in Miami.
Coffey Burlington, the law firm representing the Polits, denied the men had been served papers in the Neme suit and said that “any improprieties that may be alleged against them in the suit are false and it seems the Nemes are seeking to divert attention from their own bad acts by pointing the finger at innocent parties.” The firm also asserted that the Polits are not currently subject to an extradition order.
The money for what Neme thought was a loan came to him from Kleinfeld Services, and John Polit directed Neme to make the payments through Venture Overseas, Lage said.
Delaware-based Venture Overseas offered the benefit of making it look like a transaction was taking place between two unrelated entities, Lage said.
“It’s the vehicle for getting the money back to the Polits,” he said in an interview ahead of the Friday court hearing.
If Lage’s suit moves forward, he will have plenty to ask the Polits and Odebrecht during depositions in the information-gathering phase before trial.
That’s because the collaborative project involving more than 50 investigative reporters from 10 countries — including the Miami Herald, el Nuevo Herald and their parent, McClatchy — this week revealed new details about activities carried out by the Structured Operations Division of Odebrecht S.A.
Dubbed the bribery division, it ran the parallel accounting system and tracked bribes and other off-book activities. Odebrecht admitted this in a record Foreign Corrupt Practices Act settlement with the U.S. Justice Department in December 2016.
The roughly 13,000 leaked documents from the Drousys system were pored over by the collaborative team of reporters, working under the umbrella of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.
Among the revelations in Ecuador — where former vice president Jorge Glas has already been imprisoned for taking Odebrecht money — were new details about payments in a pipeline project called Poliducto Pascuales Cuenca.
It appears in an internal spreadsheet from Drousys documenting payments made in 2014, and included in this spreadsheet are code names, including the one Odebrecht, said prosecutors, had used for the Polits — “Miami.”
Sarasola, the father-in-law, told El Universo he learned of the alleged Odebrecht payments to his son-in-law from media reports. “I have nothing to do with this matter,” he said.
Through the lawyer, the Polits said Sarasola “is not, and never was, an owner or shareholder in Venture Overseas.” They did not explain why Sarasola was the sole name on its incorporation document.
Paúl Mena Mena and Monica Almeida report for El Universo in Quito, Ecuador.