Dead Colombian auditor in bribery case sought U.S. protection

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Colombia’s bribery saga — in which a key witness and his son both suddenly died in the past week — has taken another turn: The witness said he was negotiating with the U.S. for shelter in exchange for damning documents.

Jorge Enrique Pizano, an auditor who unearthed the corruption, told both his daughter and a professional contact about his talks with the Americans. The contact, Andres Camilo Hernandez, a Senate aide, told Bloomberg he met Pizano on Wednesday, Nov. 7, the day before his death of what was initially thought to be a heart attack.

Pizano told him he was negotiating an agreement with U.S. authorities and was awaiting “a green light so that he could travel there,” Hernandez said by email. A former journalist, Hernandez works for Senator Gustavo Petro, a leftist candidate in this year’s presidential campaign.

Colombian authorities opened an investigation into Pizano’s death after his son died of poisoning on Sunday. The son drank from a cyanide-laced bottle of water on his father’s desk and succumbed before he could reach the hospital.

Calls for Resignation

The events have caused widespread consternation in Colombia and led to calls for investigations and for the resignation of the country’s attorney general, Nestor Humberto Martinez. As an auditor on a graft-laden highway construction project, Pizano said he had collected information about fake contracts and fraud.

“He knew that a lot of people wanted him dead because of the information that he had,” Hernandez said. “What I know is that a lot of powerful heads in this country were going to roll if he got to the U.S.”

Hernandez offered no further details.

In a text message to Bloomberg, one of Pizano’s daughters said, “My father was receiving help from the U.S. because his life was in danger.”

Documents show that at least one payment of $2.7 million passed through a New York bank, a possible reason for U.S. interest.

Both the U.S. Embassy in Bogota and the FBI declined to comment.

Highway Construction

Pizano was hired as an auditor in 2010 by a subsidiary of Grupo Aval, Colombia’s largest banking group, controlled by Luis Carlos Sarmiento, Latin America’s sixth-richest man. Pizano was focused on a portion of a $2.5 billion highway the company was building in partnership with Brazilian infrastructure giant Odebrecht SA. Construction on the highway was stopped after Odebrecht admitted in 2016 to paying bribes as part of a continent-wide scheme in which it doled out payments to politicians and government officials to win contracts.

The office of Colombia’s attorney general launched its own investigation and has found evidence of as much as $32.5 million in bribes the company allegedly paid. That probe is continuing.

Grupo Aval and its subsidiary Corficolombiana, which was a minority partner on the highway project, have said they had no knowledge of Odebrecht’s bribes and that they were victims of the Brazilian company.

Pizano flagged what he thought were suspicious payments as early as 2013 to officials at Corficolombiana and later to Aval’s former legal adviser — Martinez, the current attorney general. Pizano secretly recorded conversations with Martinez in which he raised questions about the payments, although he initially wasn’t sure whether they were bribes. Portions of those conversations were aired Monday night on Colombian television. Martinez rejects any allegation of wrongdoing.

Country House

Pizano, who suffered from cancer and was in late middle age, died at his family’s country house outside of Bogota. His body was cremated, but tissue samples were preserved and are being analyzed. A spokesman for the attorney general’s office said it hoped to release the results by Friday.

Suspicions arose about the nature of his death after Pizano’s son, Alejandro Pizano Ponce de Leon, died. The son had arrived from Spain for his father’s funeral and drank from a bottle of flavored water on his father’s desk, dying of cyanide poisoning.

Hernandez said he had known Pizano since 2016 when the auditor called him asking to talk about the case. He met with Pizano several times in recent weeks, and had received documents that Hernandez claims show evidence of corporate fraud and corruption. In the weeks before he died, Pizano had received threatening phone calls, Hernandez said.

“They were calling to tell him to keep quiet or they’d kill him. That’s what he told me,” he said.

Bloomberg News
Audits Corruption