By Sabrina Valle and Jonathan Saul
RIO DE JANEIRO/LONDON (Reuters) - Liquefied natural gas firm Hygo Energy Transition Ltd has postponed its planned New York initial public offering for several weeks and may scrap the listing entirely after its CEO was named in the early stages of a corruption investigation in Brazil, two sources familiar with the matter said.
Eduardo Antonello, who has not been formally accused by Brazilian authorities, stepped down from his role as chief executive of Hygo on Tuesday to defend himself in the probe, Antonello's defense and Hygo said in e-mails. It is unclear if the move was temporary or not.
No charges have been made against Antonello and he has denied any wrongdoing.
Hypo, a joint venture between Golar LNG Limited and U.S. private equity firm Stonepeak Infrastructure Partners, had been slated to float its shares in New York on Sept. 24. That was put on hold after the New York Stock Exchange suspended debut trading of the shares the same day, without offering an explanation.
The suspension came hours after Antonello was named in the Brazilian investigation.
Antonello's lawyer, Rodrigo Brocchi, said in a statement sent to Reuters on Tuesday that false corruption allegations made to Brazilian prosecutors during plea bargain testimony were prematurely made public by Brazilian authorities despite no proof. He added that the accusations, which date back to 2011, had unfairly damaged Antonello's reputation.
The turmoil could halt a $485 million flotation that was designed to promote greater use of the super-chilled fuel in Brazil as a cleaner alternative to diesel, oil and coal. It also coincides with the country's efforts to open its wider natural gas industry to private investors.
Hygo has hired international law firm Simpson Thacher & Bartlett to evaluate the viability of the IPO continuing, one of the two sources said.
The IPO will be "on hold" until the law firm issues a report in the coming weeks, said the first source, who declined to be named, citing the sensitivity of the issue. The second source also said the IPO was postponed and could be scrapped.
Hygo said in an e-mail to Reuters it expects to resume its IPO plans within six weeks. Golar declined to comment on the IPO's timeline.
Stonepeak, the New York Stock Exchange, and Simpson Thacher & Bartlett did not immediately reply to requests for comment.
Asked about whether it had hired Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, Hypo said it had retained a specialized firm to conduct internal due diligence, but declined to name the firm.
Hygo said that what it described as Antonello's leave was "not in any way linked to any action or misconduct during his tenure at Hygo."
His functions will temporarily be taken over by the company's board, Golar said in a separate statement to Reuters.
"In an abundance of caution, Hygo has initiated a review to seek to confirm that there have not been any deviations from its culture of compliance in connection with Mr. Antonello's service to Hygo," Golar said, adding that the accusations in the probe date from before Hygo was formed.
Golar LNG has lost about half of its share value since police carried out raids of offices, including Golar's, in Rio and Sergipe on Sept. 23.
The raids and investigation by prosecutors are part of the sprawling six-year 'Car Wash' probe that has led to the jailing of two former Brazilian presidents and hundreds of executives and politicians.
The overhang from the Antonello investigation "is likely to have an impact on the valuation of Hygo and potentially their ability to win incremental business," Stifel analyst Benjamin Nolan said in a note to clients last week.
The path to realization of an IPO could be longer, with increased risk, given the need to refinance debt and other obligations, Nolan said.
"Despite the increased risk, we believe the upside potential is substantial and would remain buyers," he added.
(Reporting by Sabrina Valle in Rio and Jonathan Saul in London, Editing by Rosalba O'Brien)