By Luc Cohen
NEW YORK (Reuters) – A former employee of the world’s largest oil trader, Vitol, is set to go on trial in the United States this week on charges of bribing officials in Ecuador to win a $300 million contract from state oil company Petroecuador.
Javier Aguilar, 49, is the first individual to stand trial in the United States as part of a sprawling Justice Department probe into commodity trading firms paying bribes to win business from state-run companies across Latin America, a scandal that has roiled energy markets from Mexico to Brazil.
The jury is set to be selected on Tuesday in federal court in Brooklyn, with opening statements slated for Wednesday.
Commodities traders, which buy and sell raw materials, often operate in jurisdictions where corruption is common, putting them at risk of running afoul of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), a U.S. law that prohibits paying bribes to foreign officials.
Federal prosecutors say Aguilar, who worked in Houston as an energy trader, paid nearly $1 million in bribes to senior Petroecuador manager Nilsen Arias and an unnamed Energy Ministry official to help a state-owned Middle Eastern company win a 30-month contract to market the South American country’s fuel oil in December 2016.
Vitol had a deal to buy the fuel oil from the Middle Eastern company and then market it, prosecutors said. That company is not named in court papers, but Reuters has previously reported it is Oman Trading International, which has been rebranded as OQ Trading and fully integrated into Omani state oil company OQ.
OQ did not respond to a request for comment.
According to prosecutors, Aguilar had Vitol wire money to shell companies controlled by his associates, who then sent funds to accounts for Arias and the other official. Aguilar had Vitol enter into “sham” agreements with the shell companies so the transactions would appear legitimate, prosecutors said.
Arias and the associates – Lionel Hanst, Antonio Pere and Enrique Pere – have entered guilty pleas and may testify against Aguilar.
Aguilar has pleaded not guilty to three counts of conspiracy to violate the FCPA, violating the FCPA and conspiracy to commit money laundering. The money laundering count stems in part from charges of paying bribes to officials at Mexican state-run oil company Pemex.
His lawyers have argued in court papers that he had no basis to believe that the transactions prosecutors described as sham contracts with shell companies were illegitimate, and that the Pere brothers held themselves out to be “knowledgeable consultants” in Ecuador’s oil market.
Vitol in December 2020 admitted to bribing officials in Brazil, Mexico and Ecuador and agreed to pay $164 million to resolve U.S. and Brazilian probes.
Separately, rival global energy trader Gunvor is bracing for a fine of up to $650 million to resolve U.S. probes into its business dealings in Ecuador. Former Gunvor employee Raymond Kohut pleaded guilty to money laundering conspiracy in 2021 over his role in the scheme.
Aguilar could face more than a decade in prison if convicted, though any sentence would be determined by U.S. District Judge Eric Vitaliano, based on a range of factors.
Aguilar also faces charges in federal court in Houston over the alleged Pemex scheme. He has pleaded not guilty.
(Reporting by Luc Cohen in New York; editing by Jonathan Oatis)