RIO DE JANEIRO – Brazil’s one-time richest man, whose meteoric rise to No. 7 on the Forbes billionaires list and equally spectacular bust came to symbolize the country’s economic fortunes, went on trial Tuesday in a historic insider trading case seen as a blow against an ingrained culture of impunity.
Eike Batista was on hand at the Rio de Janeiro federal court for Tuesday’s proceedings, the latest chapter in a vertiginous fall that saw the 58-year-old businessman’s estimated $30 billion fortune evaporate over the past two years as his oil, mining, logistics and ship-making empire crumbled. While he used to boast of his ambition to dethrone Mexico’s Carlos Slim to become the world’s richest person, Batista now says he’s $1 billion in debt.
The judge trying the case, Flavio Roberto de Souza, said it was the first time insider trading charges have ever been brought to trial in Brazil, where the rich and powerful have historically been considered above the law.
“This is a moment of change,” Souza told reporters following the three-hour-long proceedings. “This is the first time that a person who’s internationally known, who possesses big companies, companies of international import, is in the dock…. It’s a historic moment for the justice system.”
The Batista trial comes amid the ongoing investigation into a corruption scheme at Brazil’s biggest company, state-run oil giant Petrobras, that’s seen a slew of arrests of company executives, as well as the heads of some of the country’s biggest construction firms. It also comes in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2012 conviction of 25 people, including top operatives of the governing Workers’ Party, in a cash-for-votes scheme — a verdict experts say struck a first blow against impunity.
“This (the Batista trial) is one more episode in what I see as the affirmation of the rule of law in the Brazilian democracy,” said Paulo Sotero, who heads the Brazil Institute at the Wilson Center, a Washington D.C.-based think-tank . “Impunity was so prevalent in Brazil it became part of the culture. Well, it looks like the culture is changing.”
As well as two counts of insider trading, Batista is facing market manipulation charges in connection with the demise of OGX, the petroleum company that was the jewel in the crown of his empire. He faces a maximum prison sentence of 13 years, though as a first time defendant, judge Souza said Batista would be unlikely to receive more than eight years, if convicted on all charges. He also is expected to face three other charges in a separate case in Sao Paulo.
Batista has said he’s innocent, maintaining that the shares he sold belonged to creditors, not him.
Although he didn’t take the stand, Batista’s every move sparked a media furor. Photographers snapped away furiously each time Batista made an odd facial expression or accepted a cup of coffee from the silver tray-bearing waiter who is a fixture in Brazilian courts. When Batista slipped out, a near-stampede ensued, with journalists sprinting down the hall after him. A pair of court officials prevented the press from joining him in the men’s room.
The public prosecutor in the case, Jose Panoeiro, called three witnesses — an official from Brazil’s market regulator, a minority shareholder in Batista’s OGX oil company and an engineer who once worked at the company.
The minority shareholder, Jose Aurelio Valporto, gave the most compelling testimony, contrasting OGX’s consistently rosy public pronouncements on its estimated reserves with internal reports and other documents suggesting the company’s oil fields would prove dramatically less productive than anticipated.
In their cross-examination, Batista’s team of attorneys suggested that the former tycoon was just as surprised by the demise of his company as his shareholders, adding that if he had been engaging in insider trading he would have unloaded many more shares.
In comments to the press, Batista lawyer Sergio Bermudes dismissed the prosecution’s case, saying the three witnesses failed to convince.
Batista’s trial is slated to continue on Dec. 10 and 17, with a verdict unlikely before the new year, the judge said.
The Batista family has tangled with the law in the past. One of Batista’s three sons, Thor, was convicted on manslaughter charges last year in connection with the 2012 death of cyclist he struck with his Mercedes-MacLaren sports car. The judge sentenced him to two years community service and a 1 million real fine.