Former Vitol oil trader convicted of Ecuador, Mexico corruption charges

By Thomson Reuters Feb 23, 2024 | 4:59 PM

By Luc Cohen

NEW YORK (Reuters) -A former oil trader at Vitol, one of the world’s largest energy trading companies, was convicted on Friday of corruption charges stemming from more than $1 million in bribes he paid to officials in Ecuador and Mexico to win business.

A federal jury in Brooklyn found Javier Aguilar guilty of three counts of foreign bribery, foreign bribery conspiracy, and money laundering conspiracy.

Federal prosecutors in Brooklyn said Aguilar sent bribe money from his Geneva-based employer to the officials through a series of middlemen and shell companies in violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), a U.S. law that prohibits paying bribes to foreign officials.

“The people of Ecuador and Mexico deserved better and companies that play by the rules should know that the process is not rigged,” U.S. Attorney Breon Peace in Brooklyn said in a statement.

Aguilar had pleaded not guilty. He faces up to 30 years in prison, but would likely get a lesser punishment.

“We disagree with the jury’s verdict and intend to appeal,” Daniel Koffmann, a lawyer for Aguilar, said in an email.

The defense had argued that Aguilar hired consultants he thought were legitimate to help Vitol win a 30-month, $300 million contract to ship crude produced by Ecuador’s state oil company Petroecuador in 2016.

It also said the consultants paid bribes without Aguilar’s knowledge, and that the payment structure was created by a top Vitol executive.

Aguilar was the first person to stand trial in the U.S. 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.

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.

Rival trader Gunvor is bracing for a fine of up to $650 million to resolve U.S. probes into its business dealings in Ecuador.

Aguilar’s eight-week trial featured testimony from several intermediaries and bribe recipients, who pleaded guilty and agreed to cooperate with prosecutors.

That included two former employees of a Houston-based subsidiary of Mexico’s state-owned oil company Pemex, who testified that Aguilar paid them around $600,000 in bribes to steer a $200 million contract for the supply of ethane gas toward Vitol.

Aguilar’s lawyers argued that the Pemex employees were not foreign officials, meaning the payments were not bribes under U.S. law.

Aguilar faces additional 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 Noeleen Walder, Marguerita Choy and Daniel Wallis)