The Business Times

Brazil's president to shake up Petrobras but keep CEO

Published Mon, Dec 22, 2014 · 11:26 PM
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[BRASILIA] Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff said on Monday that she would fire top executives at state-owned oil giant Petrobras but keep the scandal-plagued firm's chief, Graca Foster.

Petrobras, Brazil's biggest company, has been embroiled in controversy since March, when a former director was arrested for corruption and told investigators about a kickback scheme worth billions of dollars reaching deep into the halls of power in the world's seventh-largest economy.

The scandal has thrown the company into crisis and placed pressure on Rousseff, who was chair of the Petrobras board during most of the period in question.

But the president, who narrowly won reelection in October, staunchly defended Foster.

"Graca is an ethical person. She told me that if this whole situation damaged the government or Petrobras, she would leave her post no problem. I told her that wasn't necessary," said Rousseff during a media breakfast at the presidential palace.

Investigators say some US$4 billion were skimmed off inflated Petrobras contracts over the course of a decade and filtered to corrupt politicians, including from Rousseff's Workers' Party, which has governed Brazil since 2003.

So far, 39 people have been charged, including Paulo Roberto Costa, a former director of supplies at Petrobras who is cooperating with investigators as part of a plea bargain.

Costa, who is under house arrest, has named 28 politicians who took kickbacks, including Energy Minister Edison Lobao and three former ministers, media reports said Friday.

On Sunday, a former Petrobras manager said in an interview that she had "personally" informed Foster about irregularities in the company's contracts.

Addressing that claim, Ms Rousseff, 67, said she had no reason to doubt the CEO's "credibility." "I wanted Graca as CEO," she said.

"I think she's facing a very difficult climate... but I'm not going to remove her because of that. Who wants to remove Graca Foster? What's behind it? Why would I interrupt this (investigative) process?" Foster, 61, said last week that she and her board of directors would all be probed as part of an independent audit into the accusations, vowing that investigators would "go into their closets, take a look at all their papers, take their computers, their iPhones, their iPads." Foster had said that the entire board had Rousseff's trust, but the president said Monday she planned to shake up the top management team after she begins her second four-year term on January 1.

She gave no further details aside from saying that Foster would keep her job.

Ms Rousseff, who is in the process of picking her new cabinet, also said she would consult prosecutors before naming her ministers to make sure they were not suspected of corruption.

The massive scandal has combined with falling oil prices to batter the Petrobras stock price, which hit decade lows before clawing back some ground this month.

Ms Rousseff brushed off concerns over the 50 per cent plunge in crude prices since June, saying "right now, we're not worried about oil prices." She also vowed to fight to protect the company's credit rating after a series of downgrades.

"Petrobras is reaching very high daily production levels, more than 2.1 million barrels a day," she said.

"The company is in a more comfortable situation than other firms." Rousseff also said it was still impossible to determine exactly how much money went missing from Petrobras coffers.

She said some allegations of the amounts involved were "absurd." Rousseff chaired the Petrobras board from 2003 to 2010, when she stepped down to run for president.

That covers most of the period during which investigators say a corrupt network including executives in the construction industry inflated Petrobras contracts by up to six percent with illicit surcharges.

The extra cash would then be passed on to front companies to be laundered and paid out in bribes, prosecutors say.


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