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Exclusive: Ecuador weighs suit against Vitol in wake of graft revelations, sources say

QUITO/RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) - Ecuadorian state-run oil company Petroecuador is weighing a lawsuit against Vitol after the world’s largest oil trader admitted last week to bribing officials in the South American country, according to two sources with direct knowledge of the matter.

FILE PHOTO: A worker pumps fuel into a car at a Petroecuador gas station in Quito April 2, 2012. REUTERS/Gary Granja/File Photo

Petroecuador is working with the nation’s attorney general to assess how much the Vitol-led graft scheme cost the company, and will likely bring a suit against the trading firm to recoup those damages, said the people, who requested anonymity to discuss private matters.

One of the sources said a final decision on whether to bring the suit should be made in less than 90 days.

Petroecuador declined to comment. The attorney general’s office did not respond to requests for comment. Vitol said it could not comment on anything that “may pertain to ongoing legal proceedings.”

The possible lawsuit illustrates how the Swiss trader is still facing close scrutiny from civil authorities even after reaching a non-prosecution agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice last week related to corruption charges.

As part of that deal, Vitol agreed to pay U.S. and Brazilian authorities $164 million, and the company admitted to bribing officials in Brazil, Ecuador and Mexico over a 15-year period ending in July 2020.

The admission by Vitol marked a turning point in a major investigation into wrongdoing by various commodity traders and exposed the inner machinations of an industry long-dogged by allegations of fraud.

Brazilian police and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation had been investigating Vitol and rivals in the commodity trading industry for years. In Brazil, criminal investigations continue against Vitol rivals Trafigura and Glencore.

As part of the corruption schemes described in the DOJ agreement, Vitol bribed public officials to obtain fuel products from state-run oil companies at artificially low prices or to sell those products to the companies at inflated prices.

In Ecuador, according to U.S. court documents, Vitol bribed two unnamed unidentified officials to steer a shipment of Petroecuador fuel oil to a third company. That company then immediately re-sold the shipment to Vitol as part of a pre-arranged deal, according to the documents.

That third company, though unnamed in the court documents, is Oman Trading International Ltd (OTI), Oman’s state oil trader, according to one of the sources as well as Petroecuador documents seen by Reuters.

The documents did not indicate whether any OTI officials knew of the arrangement between Vitol and Petroecuador.

In 2020, OTI was rebranded OQ Trading and fully integrated into Omani state oil company OQ.

OQ Trading and Petroecuador declined to comment on the matter. Vitol said it was no longer a shareholder in OTI in 2016, and “therefore all activity between the two companies was on a fully commercial basis.”

Vitol had at one point been an equity stakeholder in OTI, but it was ultimately bought out by the state-owned company.

On Monday, Petroecuador said it had banned Vitol from its list of suppliers and customers. The trading arm of Mexico’s state-run oil company Pemex has temporarily suspended all business with Vitol, according to a letter seen by Reuters on Thursday.

Reporting by Alexandra Valencia in Quito and Gram Slattery in Rio de Janeiro; Additional reporting by Julia Payne in London; Editing by Nick Zieminski

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