Colombian prosecutors accuse former presidential candidate of taking money from Odebrecht

Colombian prosecutors on Monday accused a former presidential candidate of receiving at least $2.8 million from Odebrecht, the Brazilian construction giant that admitted paying bribes in Latin America to win infrastructure contracts.

Oscar Iván Zuluaga, a former finance minister who came close to winning the 2014 elections, was accused of fraud, illicit enrichment and document falsification. Indicted in a public hearing that lasted four hours, Zuluaga pleaded not guilty.

Prosecutors said Zuluaga met with Odebrecht executives before the 2014 presidential campaign and agreed to a scheme through which the construction company helped pay for the services of a political strategist, using accounts in Panama.

Authorities said Zuluaga failed to report Odebrecht’s contributions to Colombia’s National Electoral Council, as required by law, and instructed his son, who was then his campaign manager, to hide those funds.

Zuluaga was a close ally of conservative Álvaro Uribe, who was president from 2002 to 2010 and remains one of Colombia’s most influential politicians. Uribe, who leads the Democratic Center Party, led a second presidential bid for Zuluaga last year and expressed concern about his possible ties to Odebrecht.

The case raises new questions about Odebrecht’s involvement in Colombian politics, where the company has admitted paying at least $12 million in bribes to government officials and has been linked to various campaigns. Colombian prosecutors recently accused a former transport minister of illegally helping Odebrecht win contracts for a highway expansion.

In 2016, Odebrecht confessed in a New York federal court that it had paid nearly $800 million in bribes to officials in 12 countries while competing for public works contracts. The company, which helped build World Cup stadiums, airports and highways across the region, reached a plea deal with US officials, agreeing to pay at least $3.5 billion in fines.

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The plea agreement spurred investigations in several Latin American countries, including Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. Peruvian prosecutors are still investigating Odebrecht’s ties to influential politicians, including former heads of state.

The company changed its name in 2020 and is now known as Novonor.

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