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Argentina
Product news | 23 Aug 2019

GIR published its first Argentina investigations bar survey

When Argentina rolled out its corporate criminal liability law in March 2018, it was a sign that the country, known for its endemic corruption, was finally taking on bribery. The legislation not only enables prosecutors to hold companies liable for criminal wrongdoing but also offers corporations leniency agreements in corruption cases and requires businesses to implement anti-bribery compliance programmes. However, the standards companies must meet to be considered for a leniency deal remain unclear.

The need for the new law was apparent during attempts to resolve the case against Odebrecht – the Brazilian construction company at the centre of a bribery scandal tied to Argentina and nine other Latin American countries.

Odebrecht proposed a leniency agreement to Argentinian judges in May 2017 in an effort to settle the Operation Car Wash-linked bribery case, but the justices were unable to agree because the law did not recognise criminal liability. Though the new corporate criminal liability law does not apply retroactively, the legislation puts Argentina on the same page as other countries and will allow prosecutors to enter into leniency agreements with companies accused of similar misconduct.

The Brazilian company and its petrochemical subsidiary Braskem agreed to pay the largest corruption fine ever in 2016 to resolve related charges brought by three other countries. Odebrecht eventually paid $2.6 billion, with $2.4 billion going to Brazil, $93 million to the US and $116 million to Switzerland. According to Odebrecht’s plea deal with the US Department of Justice, the company paid at least $35 million in bribes to Argentinian officials from 2007 to 2014. Argentina is still investigating the matter, and no resolution with Odebrecht has been agreed.

Argentina’s resolve to tackle corruption has recently been put to the test with a scandal known as the notebooks [los cuadernos] scandalwhich refers to eight handwritten notebooks kept over 10 years by Oscar Centeno, who detailed bribes allegedly paid to public officials by prominent businessmen while he was the driver for Roberto Baratta, a former official in the ministry of public services. Copies of the notebooks were published by Argentinian newspaper La Nación in August 2018, triggering a wide-scale investigation into whether several high-profile politicians, including ex-president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, took bribes from construction companies to award contracts. Centeno and Baratta were arrested after the notebooks were made public. Centeno is now a cooperating witness as part of a plea agreement, while Baratta and Kirchner deny wrongdoing.

The increased enforcement brought first by Operation Car Wash and then by the notebooks scandal represents a sea change for Argentina, which as recently as 2017 was criticised by the OECD for its lax efforts to combat bribery.

Though criminal law experts in Argentina have always been on hand to advise individuals and companies on anti-corruption matters, in general, the absence of corporate criminal liability led to little demand for white-collar work in the country. Now, however, lawyers say there are signs that Argentina’s investigations bar is growing.

Lawyers told GIR that the reform has motivated Argentina’s full-service law firms to open investigations practices. Increased enforcement, meanwhile, has created more demand among individuals for advice from the country’s criminal law boutiques. That trend is expected to continue.

Bruchou Fernández Madero & Lombardi

Where: Buenos Aires

Head of investigations practice: Guillermo Jorge        

Number of partners: 3

Bruchou recently strengthened its white-collar capabilities when it absorbed compliance boutique Governance Latam in February, bringing two experienced partners – Guillermo Jorge and Fernando Basch – to the firm. Bruchou’s white-collar crime and compliance practice is now led by Jorge. Before that, Ignacio Sanz was the only partner at the firm advising clients on compliance and anti-corruption matters. Sanz, who also acts on arbitration cases, first joined Bruchou in 2005.

Time and again, Argentinian lawyers said Jorge, who has advised several international organisations including the OECD and the World Bank on compliance matters, is a star of the bar. Jorge oversaw world footballing organisation Fifa’s corporate governance reforms in 2014. Basch, meanwhile, specialises in corporate criminal law, corporate governance and compliance. He previously worked on the World Economic Forum’s “Partnering Against Corruption” initiative.

As a sign of how well regarded they are, the Argentinian government turned to lawyers including Jorge, Basch and Sanz to help draft the country’s corporate criminal liability law. The firm advised Maritime Anti-Corruption Network, which promotes the practice of trading fairly in the industry, to devise a successful strategy to significantly reduce bribery in vessels heading towards Argentina and is working on similar initiatives in other industries. The firm prefers to remain tight-lipped about the clients it’s currently acting for, but said it is conducting several investigations and risk assessments to help clients construct their compliance programmes in line with the new law.

Beccar Varela

Where: Buenos Aires

Head of investigations practice: Maximiliano D’Auro

Number of partners: 2

One of Argentina’s oldest firms (it was founded in 1897), Beccar Varela was also one of the first in the country to launch a business crime department. Created in 2012, the firm’s white-collar and corporate crime practice is led by Manuel Beccar Varela (a distant relative of the founding lawyer), whose experience working in investigations at Argentina’s justice department sets him apart from other lawyers in the country. From 1999 to 2001, Varela was the chief of judicial investigations at Argentina’s Ministry of Justice. The role meant coordinating investigations between the Buenos Aires police force and other Argentinian authorities. He specialises in corporate fraud, anti-money laundering and antitrust investigations, as well as general criminal law. Varela was reportedly involved in a fatal boat crash in March 2018. The matter is still under investigation.

Jorge Guillermo Rassó is an advisory partner in the white-collar crime practice. Rassó has practised law for over 40 years, 26 of which he spent as a prosecutor at Argentina’s Ministry of Justice. He joined Beccar Varela in 2015.

The white-collar crime practice is supported by partner Maximiliano D’Auro, who joined Beccar Varela in 2000 and became a partner in 2008. He has experience representing multinational companies in foreign bribery investigations and has also provided regulatory advice to companies in the banking and finance sectors. Outside of the firm, he contributed to the OECD’s 2014 evaluation of Argentina’s efforts to combat foreign bribery.

The firm won’t say what investigations it has worked on, but previous clients include South Korean telecommunications company Samsung Electronics, the Panama-based Latin American trade bank Bladex, Dutch-British consumer goods company Unilever and US beauty products manufacturer Avon.

Marval O’Farrell & Mairal

Where: Buenos Aires

Head of practice: Pedro Serrano Espelta

Number of partners: 3

Marval launched its corporate crime division in early 2018 to capture work from companies seeking advice on the country’s new corporate criminal liability law. The firm has a compliance department and a white-collar crime group. Gustavo Giay leads the firm’s white-collar and corporate crime group while Pedro Serrano Espelta leads the compliance department, which also boasts partner Lorena Schiariti, who advise companies on how to comply with overseas anti-bribery laws such as the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and Brazil’s Clean Companies Act.

The firm represented Skanska’s local subsidiary in a challenge against prosecutors who were trying to use the Swedish construction company’s internal audit documents in a bribery case. After a long procedural battle that lasted over 10 years, Argentina’s highest federal criminal court, the Federal Court of Cassation, ruled in 2016 the documents, including recordings of incriminating admissions made by a company executive, that were seized by authorities during a raid could be used in an investigation into the subsidiary’s alleged tax fraud and corruption.

Baker McKenzie

Where: Buenos Aires

Head of investigations practice: Vanina Caniza and Fernando Goldaracena

Number of investigations partners: 2

Baker McKenzie is the only international law firm with a real foothold, albeit small, in the investigations scene in Argentina. The firm’s investigations practice is led by Fernando Goldaracena, who has led several criminal investigations into white-collar crime, public corruption and tax fraud; and Vanina Caniza, who focuses on the healthcare sector. Both have experience helping Argentinian companies tailor compliance programmes in line with local and US law and have experience advising companies under investigation for alleged money laundering and corruption. The lawyers recently advised a foreign tobacco company under investigation by the Buenos Aires public prosecutor for bribing a customs official.

Criminal law boutiques

Durrieu Abogados

Where: Buenos Aires

Head of investigations practice: Nicolás Durrieu

Number of investigations partners:  3

Durrieu Abogados is one of the largest boutiques in Argentina specialising in criminal law and is widely respected by lawyers for its premier white-collar advice. Clients regularly seek the firm out during investigations. The firm, which was founded in 1954 to focus on criminal law, started developing its white-collar capabilities in the 1990s. Partners Justo Lo Prete, Juan Martín López Quesada, Nicolás Durrieu, Guillermo Arias, Diego Seitun and Guillermo Vidal Albarracín regularly advise individuals and companies on white-collar crimes and have worked with US law firms on local parts of Foreign Corrupt Practices Act-linked investigations. Roberto Durrieu Figueroa, who was a prominent partner at Estudio Durrieu, left in 2017 to set up another boutique, Velasco Durrieu & Asoc. Durrieu Abogados is a member of Fraudnet, an international network of lawyers specialised in asset recovery.

Munilla Lacasa Salaber & de Palacios

Where: Buenos Aires

Head of investigations practice: Hernán Munilla Lacasa and Ramiro Salaber Vicente de Palacios

Number of investigations partners: 3

Practitioners in Buenos Aires said the firm’s partners are a go-to for companies and individuals seeking expert legal advice on financial crime matters. Led by founding partners Hernán Munilla Lacasa and Ramiro Salaber Vicente de Palacios, the criminal boutique specialises in a wide variety of economic crime including tax evasion, money laundering, cybersecurity and fraud. The boutique also provides advice to companies on compliance and internal investigation matters and regularly represents individuals in court. The boutique preferred to keep the names of its clients confidential but said it is representing several individuals currently caught up in government investigations. Munilla Lacasa is also providing compliance advice to local companies in line with the new corporate criminal liability law.

Other lawyers of note

Guillermo Rivarola at Garcia Santillan Olmedo & Rivarola has a solid reputation in the market for advising companies and individuals on white-collar crime matters. He has 30 years’ experience, including time as a prosecutor in Argentina’s Public Prosecutor’s Office.

With a combined 20 years’ experience of advising on criminal law matters, Alejandro and Federico Becerra at Becerra are highly sought after by companies and individuals alike. The brothers, who only founded the firm in October 2016, have already built a strong reputation in the market for providing expert advice on corruption matters.

Cristian Mitrani at Mitrani Caballero & Ruiz Moreno comes highly recommended. Though primarily a corporate lawyer, Mitrani’s practice also includes investigations. He has helped several companies implement robust compliance programmes.

David Gurfinkel at Allende & Brea is another name to know. Gurfinkel focuses on advising local and international companies on complex litigation and compliance matters.

Former US federal prosecutor John Couriel at Kobre & Kim splits his time between the firm’s Miami, Buenos Aires and São Paulo offices. Couriel, who is one of a handful of international lawyers in Buenos Aires advising on investigations, focuses on asset tracing.

Another international lawyer in the city is Cristián Francos at Lewis Baach Kaufmann Middlemiss. Francos, who splits his time between the firm’s Buenos Aires and Washington, DC, offices, regularly advises Argentinian clients on US investigations into corruption matters.

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