The fallout continues from the ongoing investigation of corruption at Petrobras, Brazil’s giant state-owned oil company. (See New York Times coverage here, and helpful timelines of the scandal here and here.) In March of 2014, Brazilian prosecutors alleged that Petrobras leadership colluded with a cartel of construction companies in order to overcharge Petrobras for everything from building pipelines to servicing oil rigs. Senior Petrobras executives who facilitated the price-fixing rewarded themselves, the cartel, and public officials with kickbacks, and concealed the scheme through false financial reporting and money laundering. The scandal has exacted a significant human toll: workers and local economies that relied on Petrobras contracts have watched business collapse: several major construction projects are suspended, and over 200 companies have lost their lines of credit. One economist predicted unemployment may rise 1.5% as a direct result of the scandal.
The enormous scale of the corruption scheme reaches into Brazil’s political and business elite. The CEO of Petrobras has resigned. As of last August, “117 indictments have been issued, five politicians have been arrested, and criminal cases have been brought against 13 companies.” In recent months, the national Congress has initiated impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff, who was chairwoman of Petrobras for part of the time the price-fixing was allegedly underway. And last month, federal investigators even received approval from the Brazilian Supreme Court to detain former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva for questioning. (Lula was President from 2003 to 2010—during the same period of time that Ms. Rousseff was chairwoman of Petrobras.) Meanwhile, the House Speaker leading calls for President Rousseff’s impeachment has himself been charged with accepting up to $40 million in bribes.
As Brazilian prosecutors continue their own investigations, another enforcement process is underway in the United States. Shareholders who hold Petrobras stock are beginning to file “derivative suits,” through which shareholders can sue a company’s directors and officers for breaching their fiduciary duties to that company. Thus far, hundreds of Petrobras investors have filed suits. In one of the most prominent examples, In Re Petrobras Securities Litigation, a group of shareholders allege that Petrobras issued “materially false and misleading” financial statements, as well as “false and misleading statements regarding the integrity of its management and the effectiveness of its financial controls.” (For example, before the scandal broke, Petrobras publicly praised its Code of Ethics and corruption prevention program.) The claimants allege that as a result of the price-fixing and cover-up, the price of Petrobras common stock fell by approximately 80%. In another case, WGI Emerging Markets Fund, LLC et al v. Petroleo, the investment fund managing the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has alleged that the failure of Petrobras to adhere to U.S. federal securities law resulted in misleading shareholders and overstating the value of the company by $17 billion. As a result, the plaintiffs claim they “lost tens of millions on their Petrobras investments.”
Thus, in addition to any civil or criminal charges brought by public prosecutors, private derivative suits offer a way for ordinary shareholders to hold company leadership accountable for its misconduct. In these derivative suits, any damages would be paid back to the company as compensation for mismanagement; the main purpose of the suits is not to secure a payout for shareholders, but to protect the company from bad leadership. The Petrobras cases illustrate how derivative suits can offer a valuable mechanism for anticorruption enforcement, but they also face a number of practical challenges.