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Citigroup CEO defends sponsorship of event for Brazilian president amid controversy over anti-LGBT comments

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Watch CNBC's full interview with Citi CEO Michael Corbat
Key Points
  • Citigroup CEO Michael Corbat told CNBC's "Squawk on the Street" that the company has "unwavering support" for the LGBT community, but the Wall Street executive defended the company's sponsorship of an event honoring Brazil's president Jair Bolsonaro.
  • Bolsonaro has a history of making homophobic comments. He recently said Brazil cannot become a "gay tourism paradise."

Citigroup CEO Michael Corbat defended the Wall Street bank's sponsorship of an upcoming event in New York City honoring Brazil's president Jair Bolsonaro, who has a history of homophobic comments.

Corbat told CNBC's "Squawk on the Street" that the bank spends "a lot of time" making sure its staff understand the company's support of the LGBT community. Corbat stopped short, however, of pulling out of sponsoring the event planned by the Brazilian-American Chamber of Commerce to honor Bolsonaro at its 2019 Person of the Year Award Gala Dinner.

Bain & Co., Delta Air Lines and the Financial Times recently pulled their sponsorship of the event, though many big banks, including J.P. Morgan, Morgan Stanley and Bank of America, as well as other corporate and media sponsors, such as UnitedHealth Group and Forbes Brasil, remain attached. Marriott International's New York City hotel the Marriott Marquis is the event's venue after the American Museum of Natural History reversed its plans to hold the event. Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson has a long history of support for the LGBT community.

Bolsonaro recently said in an interview that Brazil cannot become a "gay tourism paradise," the latest in a history of homophobic comments made by the new Brazilian president. Previously he has been quoted as saying he would prefer his son to be a drug addict than gay and is proud to be a homophobe.

Bolsonaro also has a long history of making incendiary comments about gender, indigenous groups and torture.

"We spend a lot of time making sure our people understand the values of our company, and I hope in the case of that, there's no question in terms of our support, our unwavering support, for our LGBT community," Corbat told CNBC's Carl Quintanilla. "In there, we're supporting the Brazilian Chamber of Commerce. We've operated in Brazil for many, many decades, and I think we're very clear in terms of our stance."

Citi has received a perfect score on the Human Rights Campaign Foundation's Corporate Equality Index for 15 consecutive years.

New York State Sen. Brad Hoylman, who represents the district in Manhattan where the Marriott Marquis is located, took to Twitter to denounce Citigroup and the event's sponsors.

On CNBC Thursday, Corbat also defended the bank's executive pay structure. The pay gap at Citigroup, led by Corbat since 2012, is the biggest among large U.S. banks. Corbat made $24.2 million last year, 486 times the median employee pay of $49,766. While other bank CEOs made similar paydays, higher median pay at Bank of America and J.P. Morgan Chase meant that Citigroup had the most extreme ratio.

The backlash over Bolsonaro's views on homosexuality is one of several recent instances in which Wall Street has been wrestling with the rift between its support on social issues and business operations. A growing list of multinational banks including J.P. Morgan are banning employees from staying at hotels owned by the sultan of Brunei, where homosexuality and adultery is punishable by death.

Donovan Russo contributed to this report.

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Key Points
  • Brazil's president Jair Bolsonaro, who has a history of homophobic comments, will receive the Brazilian Chamber of Commerce Person of the Year award at an event in New York City on May 14.
  • A Marriott hotel in New York is the event venue. Marriott CEO Arne Sorenson has a long history of supporting LGBT rights.
  • Morgan Stanley, Citi and Bank of America are among event sponsors. Bain & Co. and Delta Air Lines pulled out on Tuesday.
  • The event already was moved from the Museum of Natural History, which faced backlash over Bolsonaro's Amazon rain forest policy.