It is amazing how indifferent Antiguans & Barbudans are to major scandals in this country. The latest global scandal to hit our shores is a real doozy, and for the most part the response has been a casual “another day, another scandal”. Have we become so desensitised to corruption and scandal that we think that is part of our everyday life, like the weather?
We are going to tread very carefully with this one because we have been warned that everyone is looking for someone to sue. That said, we are still going to venture into the shark infested waters of Operação Lava Jato (Portuguese for Operation Car Wash) because it is a very big deal. And why is it such a big deal? Because, an Antiguan based offshore bank, Meinl Bank, features prominently in this global bribery and money laundering scandal.
In case you are not familiar with Operation Car Wash, it is an investigation being carried out by the Federal Police of Brazil since March 17, 2014. It was initially a money laundering investigation, but was expanded to cover allegations of corruption at the state-controlled oil company, Petrobras. It is alleged that executives accepted bribes in return for awarding contracts to construction firms at inflated prices. The operation is massive. And by “massive” we mean almost US $9 billion.
So where does our bit of paradise come into this large scale investigation? Well, there is an offshore bank located on Long Street and Soul Alley, in the old Lemon Tree building, called Meinl Bank (Antigua) Ltd. That bank has been implicated in the whole sordid affair. And not just Meinl Bank; according to reports and testimony, the Antigua Overseas Bank (AOB) has been implicated as well.
It is said that the construction giant Odebrecht acquired Meinl Bank exclusively to launder funds and pay bribes. According to whistle-blower Vinicius Veiga Borin, he and executives within Odebrecht collaborated to take control of Meinl Bank Antigua in late 2010. Borin also worked at the now defunct Antigua Overseas Bank and says he, other former employees, and two central executives of Odebrecht originally bought (through third parties) 51 per cent control for over US$3 million, and eventually, Odebrecht slowly gained 67 per cent control. They operated, what the US Department of Justice calls, a “Department of Bribery”.
It was a sophisticated operation and Borin says that Odebrecht executives, linked to Meinl Bank, used special software and code names to move around US $1.6 billion through over 40 accounts. It is mind boggling to think that US$1.6 billion could be transferred through Antigua & Barbuda over a few short years and not raise an eyebrow. We have been told that US$1.6 billion is small change in the world of offshore banking, and we know that it is all just digits in a computer somewhere. But, we still can’t get over the fact that it is US $1.6 billion!
Let’s put that into perspective. Prime Minister Gaston Browne just presented a EC $1.2 billion budget, so that is almost four times our annual budget if we account for the value of money, then and now.
Speaking of the prime minister, early this year, he placed the entire Meinl Bank issue at the feet of the United Progressive Party. In a release, he called “on the leader of the Parliamentary Opposition, Baldwin Spencer, and the current leader of the United Progressive Party, Harold Lovell, to explain their role in a second banking scandal that occurred under their government from 2004 to 2014 …. reminding Spencer that he was prime minister and foreign minister when the first international banking scandal occurred under R Allen Stanford and during the period of the Meinl Bank money laundering operations. The Antigua & Barbuda Labour Party said that both “banking scandals” occurred under his leadership.
The latter is a conflicting argument because just as the Stanford scandal started under the Labour Party and broke under the UPP, the Meinl Bank scandal started under the UPP and broke under the Labour Party. There is more than enough blame to go around, but this is politics and finger pointing is the norm.
That norm has continued and the rhetoric has escalated. Most recently, Senate President Alincia Williams-Grant verbally wrestled with Minority Leader Harold Lovell as he defended himself and blasted the prime minister for alleging that he was connected to the Meinl Bank and Odebrecht scandal. He categorically denied any involvement and challenged the PM to step from behind parliamentary privilege and immunity and make his statements in public so that he could take action.
There are serious allegations being thrown out, not the least of which is the allegation that a €3 million bribe was paid to two Antiguan government officials. That bit of information was revealed in a New York court as part of US investigations into the bribery scheme. The US authorities have not named the two individuals, only describing them as “a consular official” and “an intermediary to a high-level official”.
This situation and the associated bad press is not going away any time soon. Already, Odebrecht Braskem S.A., a Brazilian petrochemical company, pleaded guilty in the United States and agreed to pay a combined total penalty of at least $3.5 billion to resolve charges with authorities. (Why can’t we levy charges and receive a settlement like that?)
Meanwhile, little ‘ole’ Antigua & Barbuda swings in the breeze, like a piñata, taking blows as our politicians point fingers. This is not acceptable. It is time we have a full, independent, investigation and clear our name (if that is even possible). At the very least, it will allow us to see who were the actors in this drama and identify the weaknesses in our system which made us home to Odebrecht’s ‘Department of Bribes’.
Everyone claims innocence, so no one has anything to lose and the country has everything to gain. Let’s waste no more time and get the investigation going.