The Transparency International-Corruptions Perceptions Index (TI-CPI) is released each year in November. The TI-CPI rates Brazil as 69th out of 175 countries on its index, coming in with a score of 43 out of 100. I wonder if TI might consider an interim report this year on Brazil? As things keep going, more and more corruption is alleged to be a part of the everyday fabric of the country. While the Petrobras and related scandals have been well chronicled, the overall stench of corruption just keeps spreading and spreading.
Recently it was announced yet another set of investigations around corruption has begun. This time it involves the Brazilian Finance Ministry’s Administrative Council for Tax Appeal. In an article in the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), entitled “Brazil Probes New Bribery Allegations”, Paulo Trevisani reported that this is an “arbitration board that hears appeals from taxpayers who dispute how much they owe the [Brazilian] government.” The investigation would appear to be widespread as “Prosecutors said 74 companies and 24 individuals are under investigation.”
Interestingly not only is the Finance Ministry investigating the allegations but also the Brazilian internal revenue service, the Brazilian federal police and the Brazilian federal prosecutors office. In what would seem to indicate the inherent conflict of interest in the Finance Ministry investigating itself, Trevisani reported the “Finance Ministry said the alleged scheme wasn’t systematic but rather, involved “isolated acts” carried out by a small group of government tax officials. When prosecutors announced the investigation on March 26 they said that losses to the nation’s treasury totaled $6.1 billion over 15 years.” Oops.
While the entities and individuals under investigation have not been named, “a leading investigator on the case said companies under investigation include Ford Motor Brazil, a unit of Ford Motor Co.; JBS, the world’s largest meatpacker, the Brazilian unit of the Spanish bank Banco Santander SA; and Brazil’s second largest private-sector bank, Bradesco SA.” You may recall from an earlier blog post I noted that Brazil’s third largest state-owned bank Caixa Econômica Federal (Caixa) is also under investigation for corruption.
However, this new corruption scandal is the first time that non-Brazilian companies have come under investigation outside of the Petrobras scandal. The WSJ article noted, “Brazil’s tax system is among the most onerous and complex in the world. Penalties can be steep. That has fostered an environment where corruption can flourish, [un-named] experts say. “Taxes in Brazil are so high and complicated that it is easy for companies to get in trouble with the taxman,” the leading investigator told The Wall Street Journal. The investigator said frequent tax disputes created opportunities for ill-intentioned public servants to profit by helping firms circumvent red tape. Prosecutors say the probe began in 2013 after they received an anonymous letter describing details of the alleged scheme.”
An article in forbes.com, entitled “Ford On List Of Companies Suspected Of Brazilian Tax Fraud” by Kenneth Rapoza, went further than the WSJ article when it laid out the list of “companies are under investigation for taking part in various tax bribery schemes” and then listed the amounts they allegedly avoided paying. The Top Ten list is:
- Santander: R$3.3 billion
- Bradesco: R$2.7 billion
- Ford: R$1.7 billion
- Gerdau: R$1.2 billion
- Light: R$929 million
- Banco Safra: R$767 million
- RBS: R$672 million
- Camargo Correa: R$668 million
- Mitsubishi: R$505 million
- Banco Industrial: R$436 million
An article in businessinsider.com, entitled “Brazil uncovers multibillion-dollar tax fraud”, reported that this investigation, dubbed Operation Zeal, had uncovered that “the [tax] body managed to obtain tax appeals board rulings in the companies’ favor by either cutting penalties or waiving them altogether. In return, officials allegedly received bribes from some 70 companies believed to have benefited from the scheme. A written statement issued by Brazilian federal police stated “The investigations, begun in 2013, showed the organization acted within the body sponsoring private interests, seeking to influence and corrupt advisors with a view either to securing the cancellation or reduction of penalties from tax authorities”. Moreover, “Police said the scam could have netted the companies as much as 19 billion reais ($5.9 billion) but evidence uncovered so far amounts to around a third of that amount.” Finally, and perhaps most ominously, the article said, “Federal police organized crime chief Oslain Campos Santan said the total sums could end up being “as much” as that involved in the Petrobras scam”.
This new Brazilian corruption scandal recalls the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) enforcement action against the Houston-based Parker Drilling Company. According to the Department of Justice (DOJ) Press Release issued at the time of the announcement of the conclusion of the matter, the company was issued a tax assessment on its drilling rigs. The Press Release went on to state, “According to court documents, rather than pay the assessed fine, Parker Drilling contracted indirectly with an intermediary agent to resolve its customs issues. From January to May 2004, Parker Drilling transferred $1.25 million to the agent, who reported spending a portion of the money on various things including entertaining government officials. Emails in which the agent requested additional money from Parker Drilling referenced the agent’s interactions with Nigeria’s Ministry of Finance, State Security Service, and a delegation from the president’s office. Two senior executives within Parker Drilling at the time reviewed and approved the agent’s invoices, knowing that the invoices arbitrarily attributed portions of the money that Parker Drilling transferred to the agent to various fees and expenses. The agent succeeded in reducing Parker Drilling’s TI Panel fines from $3.8 million to just $750,000.”
So with all of the above that has been written about in the past few weeks, where do you think Brazil should be on the TI-CPI? While its rating of 43 out of 100 may not seem too low or perhaps more accurately too much perceived corruption, it may be time for a mid-year reassessment. Certainly if you are a Chief Compliance Officer (CCO) or compliance practitioner you may wish to perform your own reassessment. If you have any dealings with the Brazilian Finance Ministry’s Administrative Council for Tax Appeal, you need to perform an internal investigation starting today on all information you can find about the process and results. For if the results were extremely favorable the reason for the achievement may have violated both Brazilian law and the FCPA.
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© Thomas R. Fox, 2015