JBS Probe Nears Completion in Road to Redemption for Meat Giant

Photo: Andre Coelho/Bloomberg ( Former CEO of JBS SA, Wesley Batista was released from prison Wednesday, on a 3-2 decision by the Superior Justice Court in Brasilia. )

(Bloomberg) -- JBS SA is close to completing an internal investigation that may give Brazilian prosecutors additional evidence of wrongdoing as part of a leniency deal in a corruption scandal.

The Sao Paulo-based meat giant and other companies controlled by the billionaire Batista brothers may be ready by September to present results of the independent probe that has collected about 220 terabytes of data from mobile phones and computers and testimony from more than 600 people, according to Emir Calluf Filho, legal and compliance director at J&F Investimentos SA, the Batistas’ holding company.

Concluding the internal probe will be another significant step toward normalcy for the world’s biggest meat company after a scandal that broke two years ago. The Batista group has sought to restore credibility after brothers Joesley and Wesley admitted to bribing hundreds of politicians and inspectors in a case that sent JBS shares and bonds tumbling and hit Brazilian markets already rocked by the so-called Carwash kickback investigation.

Back then, J&F agreed to pay 10.3 billion reais ($2.66 billion) as part of a leniency deal to protect JBS and other businesses from charges. It also committed to work with third-party forensic firms to scrutinize past transactions while implementing a compliance program to avoid new illicit acts.

“That’s the biggest private investigation ever conducted by a Brazilian company,” 39-year-old Calluf Filho said in an interview in Sao Paulo. The findings should provide authorities with robust evidence of the wrongdoings unveiled by the brothers, he said. Potential omissions in their confessions are also being probed.

More than 200 people and companies -- including cattle suppliers, law firms and consultancies -- have been blocked from doing business with the Batistas’ empire, and “several” others are facing due diligence procedures as a result of stricter controls and background checking, Calluf Filho said.

More than 130,000 workers were trained on compliance, and internal accusations soared tenfold to about 200 a month after independent reporting channels were made available. People faced warning, resignation or prosecution because of wrongdoings. Some were relocated after receiving death threats for suspending illicit payments.

JBS has also made governance progress after naming executives from outside the Batista clan for top posts -- including chief executive and financial officers -- for the first time in its 66-year history, Calluf Filho said. Still, family members remain in management and board positions.

The Batista brothers, who spent about six months in jail after the scandal broke, were forced out of day-to-day operations in the company founded in 1953 by their father. Still, a new generation of Batistas -- led by Wesley’s 27-year-old namesake son and his 26-year-old cousin Aguinaldo Gomes Ramos Filho -- is now taking the helm.

“It’s a family company, like most Brazilian firms,” Calluf Filho said, adding the Batistas are committed to improving the group’s reputation. “There’s no turning back.”

Wesley Batista senior recently became a defendant in an investigation into alleged insider trading in the days before news of the plea bargain deal broke. J&F is yet to reach a deal with the U.S. Department of Justice to avoid prosecution under U.S. anti-bribery laws.

Calluf Filho took over as a J&F executive in late 2017 against the advice of friends worried about him getting involved in a company that had been tainted by one of the biggest-ever corruption scandals in Brazil.

“Many people thought I was crazy,” he said. “But if you’re able to change a company that has the power to transform its sector, you may also be helping to change the country.”

JBS shares have more than tripled in value since the lows of 2017. In the past year, the company has been the best performing global meat stock tracked by Bloomberg, aided by the outbreak of a pig-killing disease in Asia that signals additional protein demand.

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