Construction giant Odebrecht goes after former top So. Fla execs for stealing trade secrets

By Francisco Alvarado, 

A rendering of Norwegian Cruise Line’s new $165 million terminal at PortMiami

Odebrecht, the controversial global conglomerate that has an extensive portfolio of big-ticket government construction projects across Florida, is accusing three of its former top South Florida executives of pillaging trade secrets, company data and clients over the last two years.

According to an Oct. 29 letter from the company’s attorneys obtained by Florida Bulldog, Odebrecht threatened to sue ex-employees Gilberto Neves, Yvonne Meyer and Bradley Rinzler as well as NV2A Group, a company Neves co-founded in 2016, for “unfair and egregious competitive activities.”

The Odebrecht letter claims the lawsuits would be filed against the trio and NV2A by Nov. 6, 2018, but so far none has been filed in either circuit or federal courts for Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties. Reached on his cellphone, Neves said he and his lawyers are working to resolve the dispute with Odebrecht before any litigation occurs.

“The letter is full of untrue statements and unsubstantiated allegations,” Neves said. “They have not followed through on their threat. I am trying to give them an opportunity to withdraw their allegations.”

Gilberto Neves, left, Yvonne Meyer and Bradley Rinzler

Attorney Kevin Vance, a partner with Duane Morris representing Odebrecht, and company spokeswoman Jennifer Pereira declined comment.

Earlier this year, a joint venture between NV2A and construction firm Haskell beat out Odebrecht to build a $165-million terminal for Norwegian Cruise Lines at PortMiami. Neves worked for Brazil-based Odebrecht for nearly 33 years, rising to the position of president and CEO of the firm’s U.S. subsidiary. “I had more longevity than the people who are involved in this,” he said. “These people don’t know what happened when I was with Odebrecht.”

Neves declined further comment. Meyer and Rinzler did not respond to email requests for comment.

‘Unfounded accusations’

Attorney Allen Pegg, a partner with Hogan Lovells representing NV2A and the three former executives, said the Odebrecht letter is rife with unfounded accusations. “My clients wholly deny all allegations of wrongdoing,” Pegg said in an email. He declined further comment, but provided Florida Bulldog with a copy of the three-page Nov. 5 response he sent Odebrecht’s lawyers refuting the allegations.

According to the Odebrecht letter, Neves was terminated in April 2016, nine months before the company signed the largest anti-corruption settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice, agreeing to pay up to a $4.5-billion fine for violating foreign bribery laws. Meyer, who was Odebrecht’s chief estimator, and Rinzler, who was a senior project manager, quit the firm in July 2016 and December 2016 respectively.

Odebrecht bribe list compiled as reported in December 2017 by BBC.

During Neves’ tenure, Odebrecht became a prolific winner of government-related construction contracts across the state. The firm has built and managed construction for the Dolphin Garage, the air traffic control tower, and the north and south terminals at Miami International Airport. The portfolio also includes new bridges in Apalachicola, Santa Rosa, St. Augustine, Vero Beach and New Smyrna Beach. According to a company economic impact statement, Odebrecht has won more than $4 billion in government contracts in Florida.

Along the way, Odebrecht has at times been investigated and audited for project mismanagement and cost overruns. In 1997, the Miami International Airport Garage opened more than a year behind schedule and $13.7 million over budget. Four years later, Odebrecht partnered with two other firms to build the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts. The estimated three-year project was completed more than 800 days behind schedule in 2006. It also cost nearly $100 million above the original construction estimate.

A 2015 Broward County auditor’s report found a $24.5-million cost overrun on an airport runway expansion project awarded to a joint venture between Odebrecht and Central Florida Equipment Rentals. The report attributed most of that overrun to county-requested changes, but said $1.5 million were “excessive and avoidable costs” due to “inadequate oversight and review” by the two companies hired by the county.

Criminal probe

The same year, parent company Odebrecht S.A. was targeted in a wide-ranging criminal probe in its home country. The firm’s then-chief executive Marcelo Odebrecht was arrested in June of that year on charges of corruption, money laundering and criminal conspiracy. Odebrecht executives allegedly paid kickbacks in connection with petroleum contracts in Brazil. Other countries such as Ecuador, Colombia and Peru also opened investigations into Odebrecht’s activities in those nations. The U.S. government also went after Odebrecht.

According to its settlement agreement with the U.S. federal government, Odebrecht “engaged in a massive and unparalleled bribery and bid-rigging scheme for more than a decade, beginning as early as 2001.”  The firm paid approximately $788 million in bribes to government officials, their representatives and political parties in a number of countries in order to win business.

Court documents note that two unnamed Odebrecht employees in Miami engaged in conduct related to certain projects “in furtherance of the scheme.” Odebrecht pleaded guilty to one-count of conspiracy to violate the anti-bribery provisions of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

In a letter to the three former executives, Neves allegedly told his then-Odebrecht bosses that he did not intend to build government infrastructure projects and compete against them once his employment was terminated. His severance agreement also included a provision that required Neves to keep confidential any information about Odebrecht he acquired during his tenure, the letter states.

In July 2016, three months after Odebrecht canned him, Neves launched NV2A with three other partners. Odebrecht alleges it has found evidence that its former U.S. subsidiary chief laid the groundwork for poaching clients and stealing company information during his final months with the company. “Neves formulated business plans, revenue projections, and similar documents that demonstrate that Neves, in February and March 2016, planned to form a construction company that focus, at least in part, on public infrastructure construction work — in competition with Odebrecht,” the letter states.

Odebrecht allegations

During those two months, Neves allegedly emailed confidential and sensitive Odebrecht information from his company account to his private email address, as well as recruiting Meyer and Rinzler to join him at NV2A. Odebrecht claims Meyer also stole vital company data during her last months with the company. For instance, she allegedly transferred on June 7, 2016 a PDF file containing Odebrecht’s management approach, quality control, scheduling procedures and costs for a Florida International University project to a NV2A email address Neves had set up for her.

Rinzler hurt Odebrecht by trying to steer clients to NV2A while he was still working for the Brazilian conglomerate, according to the Oct. 29 Odebrecht letter.

For example, on Nov. 8, 2016, an Odebrecht client at the AmericanAirlines Arena reached out to Rinzler about a new project. “Instead of bringing the project to Odebrecht, Rinzler immediately forwarded the opportunity to NV2A and asked NV2A to work on it,” the letter claims.

Odebrecht is demanding Neves and Rinzler return the money paid to them from their severance agreements, as well as disclosing its intention to seek punitive damages against the three former executives. More importantly, Odebrecht wants an injunction that prohibits NV2A from competing for government contracts.

In his Nov. 5 response letter, Pegg claims that Neves, Meyer and Rinzler do not have non-compete restrictions with Odebrecht, that his clients have no reason to access Odebrecht’s confidential information and that if the company pursues its lawsuit, he will depose former and current employees about the corruption scandal. Pegg also noted that NV2A has three other co-founders who each bring more than 20 years’ experience leading construction firms.

“Each of these individuals brought expertise gained from the successful establishment of other firms in the industry,” Pegg wrote. “The underlying claim that NV2A was founded on confidential, sensitive and trade information taken from [Odebrecht] is simply absurd.”

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