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Ex-Vitol Oil Trader Aguilar Found Guilty in US Bribery Case

(Bloomberg) — A former Vitol Group oil trader was found guilty by a New York jury of orchestrating an elaborate scheme to bribe Mexican and Ecuadorian officials.

A federal jury in Brooklyn, New York, found Javier Aguilar guilty of conspiracy to violate US anti-bribery laws and money laundering. The verdict, which took less than a day, was the culmination of a seven-week trial that provided an unprecedented window into corruption in the commodity industry.

US prosecutors alleged that in order to win $500 million in business, Aguilar used intermediaries, shell companies and at least six co-conspirators to make hundreds of thousands of dollars in illicit payments to government officials in Mexico and Ecuador.

“The defendant and his co-conspirators sought to enrich themselves through criminal backroom deals,” Brooklyn US Attorney Breon Peace said in a statement. “The people of Ecuador and Mexico deserved better and companies that play by the rules should know that the process is not rigged.”

Aguilar, 50, now faces as long as 20 years in prison on the most serious charge of money laundering. No date has been set for sentencing.

After the verdict, US District Judge Eric Vitaliano rejected a request from prosecutors to place Aguilar into custody. The judge increased Aguilar’s bond to $2 million, directed that he be fitted with an electronic ankle bracelet and restricted his travel to Texas and the Eastern District of New York.

Daniel Koffmann, the trader’s lawyer, argued that his client wouldn’t be a flight risk. “We disagree with the jury’s verdict and intend to appeal,” Koffmann said after the proceedings were over. 

Vitol, the world’s largest independent oil trader, agreed in 2020 to a $160 million settlement with the DOJ over allegations that it paid bribes in three countries. A spokesperson for the company declined to comment on the verdict.

Aguilar, who declined to comment after the verdict, was the first commodity trader to face trial following a series of investigations in the US, UK, Brazil and Switzerland that implicated many of the industry’s biggest names and yielded a slew of guilty pleas.

The bribes included a luxury bathroom remodeling and cash payments handed over at hotels, airports, and even in the parking lot just outside the Houston office of a Pemex subsidiary. Bank records also showed Aguilar siphoned off more than $610,000 in Vitol money for himself, according to the US.

While the world’s commodity traders have long held a reputation for paying bribes to win business, the industry has sought to distance itself from its tainted past. Yet the testimony and evidence in Aguilar’s trial laid bare a brazen web of corruption that began in 2015 and continued until 2020.

Aguilar was charged in 2020 with orchestrating a five-year bribery and money-laundering scheme while working at Vitol’s subsidiary in Houston. 

The trial featured testimony from six men who pleaded guilty and are cooperating with the US, including former officials at the state owned oil companies of Ecuador and Mexico. The cooperators also included several middlemen who admitted funneling hundreds of thousands of dollars in payments for Aguilar.

“Six people came before you and testified about the bribes they paid or accepted,” prosecutor Jonathan Lax told jurors during closing arguments Wednesday. “All of these people knew the defendant, they all testified about the same thing — that the defendant was in on it.” 

Paper Trail

The testimony implicated at least six international oil trading companies, in addition to Vitol, including Gunvor Group  and Trafigura Group. Gunvor has disclosed a US investigation over bribery in Ecuador and booked a $650 million provision. Trafigura has declined to comment on the case. 

The government’s evidence also included scores of emails Aguilar exchanged with co-conspirators using a “007” alias while he discussed making the bribes. The US said a paper trial also linked Aguilar to the money sent from Vitol through shell companies to pay more than a half dozen foreign government officials.

Aguilar denied the charges, arguing that he had been framed by a Vitol executive in Geneva, Marc Ducrest, who prosecutors described as an unindicted co-conspirator. Ducrest has not been charged with any crimes.

–With assistance from Jack Farchy.

(Updates with Vitol declining to comment on the verdict.)

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.

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