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BBVA tapping claim like 'spy novel' but chairman says probe hasn't hurt business

Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria SA's executive chairman sought to calm anxious shareholders on March 15 as he faced a grilling from investors over an investigation into allegations that the bank spied on government officials and executives.

Carlos Torres told a shareholder meeting in Bilbao that the probe was not having an impact on business.

"We are monitoring the possible effects that such information may be having on our business and on the market and right now we haven't yet found direct relevant impacts on our business or on our share price caused by this situation," said Torres.

The bank's shares have in fact risen since the allegations became public in January. Since the beginning of the year, they have increased 11.4%, while the STOXX Europe 600 Banks Index is up 9.3%.

BBVA has been conducting an investigation into the allegations since June 2018, and Spanish media have reported that the Spanish High Court is looking into the case. The claims became public in January after two Spanish websites reported on Jan. 9 that BBVA had paid large sums of money in 2004 to a security company to spy on executives and government officials who favored a takeover of the lender. Former Executive Chairman Francisco Gonzalez, who retired in December after almost 20 years at the helm of the bank, is alleged to have overseen the wiretapping.

Reputation questions

Shareholders raised questions about how the spy probe was affecting the reputation of the bank, with one trade union official called the allegations "something from a spy novel." World Federation of Investors President Jean-Pierre Paelinck told the meeting that the allegations were a "clear example of what shouldn't happen in a private sector company and in particular a listed company."

Among the shareholders questioning the allegations was Luis del Rivero, the former chairman of Sacyr SA, a construction company that wanted to take over BBVA and who was allegedly wiretapped.

He said BBVA's shares had lost 33% of their value since Gonzalez became head of the bank in 2000. He also said he had written a letter to large shareholders in the bank including BlackRock Inc. to create a special committee of shareholders who would ensure that the allegations do not affect the bank's reputation.

Investigation continuing

Torres said the bank's investigation was continuing and the bank was working with the relevant authorities.

"We will continue to investigate with full rigor and as fast as we can working with the authorities as we have done so far and on the basis of proven facts we will reach the suitable decisions regarding this matter in order to resolve the situation always acting in the best interests of the bank, which is really the best interests of our shareholders."

"BBVA has been, BBVA is, and BBVA will continue to be an honest bank and will continue to act as such," Torres said.

José Miguel Andrés, chairman of the bank's audit and compliance committee, said the body had called an extraordinary meeting on Jan. 18 following the press reports, and had taken over supervision of the case.

"The clarification of the facts is an essential element in order to be able to go to the board of directors with the proposed resolutions that need to be taken and in this work the committee is actively involved," he said.