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Energy Trader Convicted of Bribing Officials in a Developing Nation

Court case illustrates the profit potential of small bribes in the energy-trading business

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Published Feb 26, 2024 7:02 PM by The Maritime Executive

A U.S. federal jury has convicted a former Vitol trader of bribery and money laundering in connection with a sprawling scheme to secure contracts in Latin America. 

Javier Aguilar, formerly employed by trading house Vitol, has been convicted of bribing officials at Petroecuador and laundering money for bribe payments in Ecuador and Mexico. He denies the charges, and his lawyers claim that he was set up by a former executive at Vitol.

The jury found that over the course of 2015-2020, Aguilar and his co-conspirators bribed Ecuadorian officials to obtain a $300 million fuel oil contract. Since Petroecuador has restrictions on contracts with private firms, the deal was arranged through a Middle Eastern state-owned enterprise, and the paid-off Ecuadorian officials made sure that this firm won the contract.

Aguilar also allegedly bribed two officials with Mexican state energy firm Pemex, paying $600,000 to obtain a supply contract for ethane gas worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

Court documents illustrate the profound financial incentives for committing bribery in the energy-trading business. The court found that over the course of the scheme, Aguilar had arranged to pay just $1 million in bribes in exchange for a $500 million book of business for Vitol. Seven of Aguilar's co-conspirators have agreed to forfeit $63 million in ill-gotten earnings - a massive 60-fold profit on a $1 million bribery expense. 

Aguilar faces a maximum sentence of up to 30 years in prison. According to Bloomberg, his bail has been set at $2 million and he has been ordered to wear an ankle monitor until the sentencing hearing. 

Vitol settled with the Department of Justice in a related case in 2020, and it agreed to pay $160 million in penalties. Competitor Gunvor has also acknowledged that it faces an inquiry in connection to alleged corruption in Ecuador.