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Energy

Two top executives at refiner Citgo Petroleum exit abruptly

MEXICO CITY/HOUSTON, Dec 14 (Reuters) - Two top executives at Citgo Petroleum, part of a team of U.S. managers put in charge of the Houston-based refiner after it split from its Venezuelan parent, have abruptly left the company, according to two people familiar with the matter.

The departures on Friday of one of its top lawyers and the head of strategic projects come as a U.S. investigation heats up into bribery during Citgo Petroleum’s control by Venezuelan state oil firm PDVSA.

Rick Esser, who ran the refining company after U.S. authorities barred its former CEO from entering the United States, and General Counsel Judith Colbert, who oversaw the company’s legal team managing its cooperation with a U.S. Justice Department probe of bribery in Citgo contract awards, left at the same time, the people said.

Neither Esser nor Colbert responded to phone and emailed requests for comment.

The executives’ exit has not been disclosed by Citgo. Spokeswoman Kate Robbins declined to comment. The U.S. Department of Justice declined to comment, said spokeswoman Danielle Nichols.

Esser and Colbert were part of a team of executives put in charge of the eighth-largest U.S. refiner early last year after the Trump administration ordered the firm to cut all ties with Venezuela.

Luisa Palacios, who as Citgo chair ran the company, stepped down from the post in October while remaining on the board. Her replacement has yet to be named.

Citgo posted a third-quarter loss of $248 million on falling demand and plant shut-downs from hurricanes.

Federal prosecutors in July indicted a former Citgo procurement manager for accepting $2.5 million in bribes from companies to win contracts with the refiner and its parent. He was the 27th person and first Citgo executive to be charged in the ongoing probe of bribery at PDVSA.

The government of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has described the investigation as politically motivated. (Reporting by Marianna Parraga in Mexico City. Writing and additional reporting by Gary McWilliams in Houston; editing by Howard Goller)

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