RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) – Brazilians authorities carried out a wave of searches and detentions linked to the Odebrecht construction company on Tuesday, accusing it of having a department that oversaw payment of bribes on projects including an airport, a subway and a World Cup soccer stadium.
Prosecutors announced they had detained about 15 people, some of them company executives, as part of the “Car Wash” corruption probe that has centered on alleged kickbacks on projects as the state-run oil giant Petrobras .
The company’s former president, Marcelo Odebrecht, was sentenced this month to more than 19 years in prison for his role in the scheme, but Tuesday’s operation widens the scope of the probe into the construction firm – one of the main builders involved in this year’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
It also opens further questions about Olympic projects and reinforces suspicions that projects linked to the 2014 World Cup were tainted by corruption.
The company has previously denied wrongdoing. On Tuesday, it issued a terse statement saying it was cooperating with the investigation.
Speaking at a news conference, prosecutors said Odebrecht’s so-called “structured operations sector” was responsible for bribes and continued to operate even well after the Petrobras corruption probe began two years ago.
Odebrecht “really had a sector that organized, did accounting for, had a hierarchy and a mandate for the payment of bribes,” said federal prosecutor Carlos Fernando dos Santos Lima, adding that federal and state projects were being scrutinized.
Odebrecht is suspected of making payouts in projects including the airport in the central city of Goiania, the extension of the Rio de Janeiro subway and Sao Paulo’s Arena Corinthians, which was one of Brazil’s 12 World Cup stadiums, according to court findings on which the searches and arrests were based. Projects carried out in Portugal, Angola and United Arab Emirates were also mentioned.
The findings said investigators are looking into a possible payment of 500 million Brazilian reais ($138 million) involving the soccer club.
Police official Renata Rodrigues called the company’s illicit payout scheme “professionalized and institutionalized” and said Marcelo Odebrecht appears to have been directly involved in the scheme even after his June, 2015, detention.
“There was a procedure to be followed for these parallel payments,” Rodrigues said, adding that employees involved in the scheme emailed their superiors with requests for the authorization of bribes.
Laura Goncalves Tessler of the federal prosecutors’ office said those who worked in the payouts sector tended to be veteran employees who were “very well paid.” She said that after the probe began, the company attempted to shield the employees by offering them postings abroad.
Prosecutors have said the overall scheme involved more than $2 billion in bribes paid to obtain Petrobras contracts, with some money making its way to the governing Workers’ Party as well as opposition parties. Some of Brazil’s wealthiest people have been caught up in the probe, as have dozens of politicians from both the governing coalition and the opposition.