Patricia Hurtado and Maria Clara Cobo, Bloomberg News
EnergiesNet.com 02 08 2024
A former Pemex executive testified that he agreed to accept $300,000 from Vitol Group in exchange for helping the trading house win a deal with the Mexican state-owned oil company.
The testimony is the latest development in the trial of former Vitol trader Javier Aguilar to recount the corrupt activities of the commodity trading industry in near-unprecedented detail.
Carlos Espinosa, a former manager at Pemex’s Houston-based subsidiary PPI, on Tuesday told a federal jury in Brooklyn, New York, that he and a colleague accepted bribes from Aguilar which they called “dulces por la fiesta,” or candies for the party.
While the trial has so far focused on bribes paid to government officials in Ecuador, prosecutors also allege that Aguilar bribed Mexican officials to win business for Vitol, the world’s largest independent oil trader.
Espinosa said while he hoped Aguilar would pay him and a PPI colleague $1 million each in exchange for confidential information that helped Vitol win a deal with PPI, Aguilar later told him he had others to bribe so he could only pay them $600,000.
“The cash register should start ringing from now on, right?” Espinosa wrote to a colleague in a WhatsApp message in August 2017, which is when he said the scheme began. Both Espinosa and his former PPI colleague, Gonzalo Guzman, have pleaded guilty to violating US anti-bribery laws and are cooperating with the US.
When prosecutor Derek Ettinger asked Espinosa what he meant by the “cash register” message he sent to Guzman discussing the bribe scheme with Aguilar, Espinosa told jurors, “I was telling Gonzalo that if we were going to start giving him confidential information that compromised us, he’d have to start paying us right away.”
Federal prosecutors allege Aguilar paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to Mexican and Ecuadorian government officials to win $500 million in business for Vitol. He has pleaded not guilty to US charges of violating US anti-bribery laws as well as engaging in a money-laundering conspiracy. Vitol in 2020 admitted to paying bribes in Mexico, Ecuador and Brazil.
Earlier, a key government witness stumbled when confronted with messages that Aguilar’s lawyers say indicate that another Vitol employee was behind the scheme.
Lionel Hanst, the Curacao-based middleman who handled payments from Vitol in the bribery scheme, was shown WhatsApp conversations that appeared to indicate he was discussing the payments with Marc Ducrest, a Vitol executive in Switzerland.
Both men appeared to be speaking in code at times in the exchanges. “There is also a new weather report please check,” Hanst said to Ducrest in one message. “Z arrived,” Hanst wrote in another. “Let me know when L is ready for processing.”
Hanst, who appeared flustered when presented with the messages, testified that “Check the weather” was code for “Check your email,” and that the messages were actually code for the exchange of personal information and adult photos.
Hanst, who has pleaded guilty and is cooperating with the US government, earlier testified that he used two shell entities to pay as many as 20 brokers who participated in the scheme. He said he would sometimes communicate with Ducrest if he couldn’t reach Aguilar.
Aguilar’s lawyers have argued that Ducrest was the real culprit, and had unfairly pinned the blame on Aguilar.
Ducrest, a long-time Vitol trader who no longer works for the firm, hasn’t been accused of wrongdoing. Through a spokesperson, he declined to comment. Vitol also declined to comment.
A spokesman for Brooklyn US Attorney Breon Peace, whose office is prosecuting the case with the Justice Department, also declined to comment on Ducrest.
Jurors also heard that Hanst and Ducrest were friends long before Aguilar joined Vitol. Hanst said after Aguilar was charged by the US in 2020, he also learned he too was under investigation and testified he reached out to Ducrest. Hanst said Ducrest lent him $350,000 to help pay his legal fees, but later asked him for collateral. Hanst said he put up his home to satisfy Ducrest’s concerns about repaying the loan.
“And now you are afraid that if you don’t cover for Marc Ducrest, he could take away your house,” Aguilar’s lawyer, William Price, asked Hanst Monday.
“If I don’t pay him, that could be,” Hanst replied.
–With assistance from Jack Farchy.
bloomberg.com 02 07 2024