A Venezuelan judge has sentenced 6 U.S. oil executives to prison

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) – On Thursday, a judge found six American oil executives guilty of corruption charges who were held in Venezuela for three years and immediately sentenced to prison. families in the United States.

Some relatives prepared the frustrating result that occurred on the eve of Thanksgiving. Defense lawyer Jesus Loreto called the outcome of the trial “bad news” and said the verdict was little or not proved by government prosecutors at all.

“They have no evidence that these guys are being held accountable for any irregularities,” Loreto said. – They should be released.

Attorney María Alejandra Poleo, who assisted on behalf of three men, said, “Of course, the defense will appeal to the court.”

The so-called Citgo 6 is an employee of the Houston-based refinery Citgo, which is owned by the Venezuelan state oil company, PDVSA. Three years ago, they were lured to a business meeting in Venezuela and arrested on corruption charges.

Through their arrest, the government of President Nicolás Maduro cleansed the PDVSA and when relations between Caracas and Washington collapsed.

Five of the men were sentenced to 8 years and 10 months in prison, while one was sentenced to 13 years. According to Loreto, the five men with lower conditions could be released in a few years.

Relatives did not make an immediate statement, nor did Venezuelan officials.

One man, Tomeu Vadel, wrote in a letter to a Caracas prison and addressed exclusively to the Associated Press that he had hopes of a fair trial so that he could walk freely, clearing his name, and go home to his family. United States.

Vadell said in the letter that it was especially painful to be separated at Thanksgiving from his wife, three adult children and a newborn grandson he had never held.

“Before experiencing this tragedy, these holidays were very special periods for our family,” Vadell wrote, saying he embraced the traditional American holiday after working at Citaco in 1999 from Caracas to Lake Lake, Louisiana. “They’re causing me a lot of sadness now.”

This is the first time Vadell or any of the so-called Citgo 6 has spoken publicly since he was arrested and charged in an allegedly large-scale corruption regime. He was held in a dreaded Caracas prison called El Helicoide.

Despite his circumstances, Vadell gave hope.

“At the trial, the truth proved undeniable,” Vadell said in the four-page, handwritten letter. – It proves I’m innocent.

Vadell, 61, and five other Citgo executives were summoned to PDVSA headquarters to hold a budget meeting on November 21, 2017. A corporate plane transported them to Caracas and told them they would be home on Thanksgiving. .

Instead, a cadre of military intelligence officers crashed into the courtroom and dragged them to jail.

Their lawsuit began four months ago and there were closing arguments on Thursday. The judge immediately pronounced his verdict.

The men accused along with Vadel are brothers Gustavo Cárdenas, Jorge Toledo, Jose Luis Zambrano and Alirio Zambrano, who are all U.S. citizens. The longest sentence was given to Jose Pereira, a permanent resident.

He was also accused of embezzling proposals that had never been implemented to refinance some $ 4 billion in Citgo bonds by offering a 50% stake in the company. Maduro then accused them of “treason”.

They all professed innocence.

The trial took place one day a week in downtown Caracas court. Due to the epidemic, seats were held in front of the shore of the dormant elevators in the hallway, apparently to take advantage of the air flowing through the open windows.

News media and advocacy groups were denied access to the hearings. There was no response to a letter to Judge Lorena Cornielles requesting permission to observe the Associated Press.

In a statement to the AP prior to the verdict, the Venezuelan Attorney General’s Office said investigators had found “serious evidence” confirming financial crimes potentially detrimental to the state-owned company.

“The Citgo case has progressed normally at all stages established by the Venezuelan criminal proceedings,” the statement said.

Loreto said his client was apparently caught in a “geopolitical conflict” of which he was not a part. According to him, Vadell’s name never appeared in documents read as evidence by prosecutors.

“Nothing refers directly or indirectly to Tomeu,” the lawyer said. “It’s the story of a good guy who was caught against his will for all the wrong reasons.”

Former New Mexican governor Bill Richardson negotiated the release of Americans held by other hostile governments, traveled to Caracas in July and met with Maduro.

He did not win their leave, but days later the two of them – Cardenas and Toledo – were released from prison and placed under house arrest. Two weeks later, the long-delayed trial began.

Richardson told the AP that talks with the Venezuelan government continue despite his “slightly stormy” meeting with Maduro. He said he thought there was an opening for elected president Joe Biden and that Maduro was working to improve relations with Washington.

“I think the Venezuelans were right with me, but further progress is needed,” Richardson said before the verdict. “I hope there will be something positive by Christmas.”

It is not clear what approach Biden will take towards Maduro. Trump aggressively urged Maduro to be removed with comprehensive financial sanctions, and the U.S. Department of Justice accused Maduro of being a “narcotrorist” offering a $ 15 million reward for his arrest.

Vadell’s letter avoided politics. He did not mention Maduro and did not talk about prison guards, although he expressed concern about the “consequences” of the speech.

Encouraging Vadell’s family, he broke his silence, risking the opinions of relatives.

“I think it’s more important that the light of hope illuminates us,” Vadell wrote. “The light of hope can end my family’s sadness.”

The five other men did not respond to a request to comment through Associated Press attorneys.

Vadell’s daughter, 29-year-old Cristina Vadell, said in a phone interview from Lake Charles that her father is not the kind of person looking for attention. He focuses more on work and his family.

During his 35-year career at PDVSA and Citgo, Vadell eventually ran a huge refinery in Charles Lake and then became vice president of refining. The letter attempts to explore this side of his life, he said.

“I think he was willing to take risks and open hearts to come home,” he said. “I think you’re still wondering, ‘What happened?’ He went to a workshop and never came home.

He shared photos of the family with his father, standing around a Thanksgiving turkey. Every year they were given a name like Charlie or Phillip. The last three Thanksgiving just wasn’t the same without him, he said.

Vadell wrote that he was proud to be the son of Spanish immigrants to Venezuela, where he studied to be an engineer. He brought his family to the United States and brought together the best of both countries, he said.

“Now I come to an intersection where, after justice is achieved, I will be able to rebuild my life and try to make up for every lost moment in my family,” Vadell wrote. “The light is strong – hope is great – give me freedom.”


Scott Smith on Twitter: @ScottSmithAP


Associated Press writer Joshua Goodman in Miami contributed to this report.