(Bloomberg) -- Around the time Gunvor Group Ltd. was convicted on bribery charges in 2019, Chief Executive Officer Torbjörn Törnqvist touted its relatively new compliance department as evidence that the company had changed.

Gunvor, by then one of the world’s largest oil traders, had operated for more than a decade without a compliance team to monitor its payments or trading partners for signs of illegal or irregular activity. But then it was hit by a Swiss investigation into bribery in the Republic of Congo, and it pledged to turn around.

“We need to take our experience in Congo very seriously and learn our lessons from that. We must make sure we never find ourselves in that situation again,” Törnqvist said at the time.

Yet even as he spoke, his company was not only still paying bribes halfway across the world in Ecuador, but the payments were continuing despite concerns being raised by its compliance department. On Friday, as Gunvor pleaded guilty to US bribery charges, the trading house admitted the team had been looking into the Ecuador payments for nearly two years before putting a stop to them.

Gunvor’s guilty plea is the latest in a string of black eyes for the world’s commodity traders, after a series of investigations laid bare an astonishing scale of corruption that has drawn in the industry’s biggest names. The admission that it took years to shut down the bribery scheme after the first red flags highlights the weaknesses in the industry’s historical approach to compliance, even as its largest companies publicly renounced corruption. 

Already this year, the trial of a former Vitol Group trader revealed that until at least 2019, it had been possible for senior staff to authorize payments that bypassed the company’s compliance systems. Rival Glencore Plc, after pleading guilty to corruption charges in 2022, has two US Department of Justice-appointed monitors overseeing its compliance program.

Gunvor on Friday agreed to pay more than $660 million to resolve US and Swiss cases against it, admitting that its employees had funneled $97 million to the Pere brothers, middlemen who used it for bribes to Ecuadorian officials. The Pere brothers pleaded guilty in 2020.

Gunvor executives and compliance staff started investigating the company’s payments to the Peres in 2018, but only put a stop to them in 2020, according to a statement of facts that Gunvor admitted as true and accurate as part of its plea deal.

“Antonio Pere and Enrique Pere failed repeatedly to provide complete responses to Gunvor’s documentary requests and would not travel to Gunvor’s headquarters for the requested meeting,” according to the statement of facts. “Notwithstanding these repeated failures, Gunvor continued to make corrupt payments to entities owned and controlled by Antonio Pere and Enrique Pere until approximately January 2020.”

In a statement on Friday, Törnqvist said that Gunvor’s compliance program was now “industry-leading.” The company highlighted the fact that the US government was not imposing an independent compliance monitor on it as evidence of its progress.

Still, the facts of the case once again underscored the commodity trading industry’s lax historical approach to corruption and wrongdoing.

Over a period of nearly a decade, from 2012 to 2020, Gunvor traders bribed Ecuadorian officials via the Pere brothers. Among the bribes was an 18-carat gold Patek Philippe timepiece given to Nilsen Arias, the head of international trading at Petroecuador.

The scheme was led by Raymond Kohut, a former Gunvor trader who pleaded guilty in 2021. But the statement of facts highlighted the involvement of two former Gunvor managers — one of whom was described as having “senior managerial roles in Gunvor’s crude oil department” until 2018.

In a statement, the US Department of Justice said the deals had generated $384 million in illicit profits. Explaining the size of the fine — one of the largest ever meted out to a commodity trading company — it said Gunvor “has a history of misconduct.”

--With assistance from Patricia Hurtado.

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