May 27, 2019 / 9:51 PM / 3 months ago

Mexico takes aim at former Pemex CEO in fight against graft

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Mexico’s Finance Ministry said on Monday it had blocked the bank accounts of the former chief executive of state oil firm Pemex, one of ex-President Enrique Pena Nieto’s closest advisers, for allegedly carrying out “illegal” financial operations.

FILE PHOTO: Emilio Lozoya Austin, CEO of Petroleos Mexicanos, speaks during the IHS CERAWeek 2015 energy conference in Houston, Texas April 21, 2015. REUTERS/Daniel Kramer

The ministry’s Financial Intelligence Unit (FIU) identified the former CEO of Petroleos Mexicanos (Pemex) as Emilio Lozoya Austin. It also said it froze the bank accounts of one of Mexico’s largest steelmakers, Altos Hornos de Mexico, or AHMSA.

The FIU said the accounts were frozen after “multiple operations were identified in the domestic and international financial system that were carried out with resources that allegedly do not come from lawful activities and which are presumed to have derived from acts of corruption.”

The Public Administration Ministry said on Wednesday it punished two Pemex senior executives from the previous administration of Pena Nieto for misuse of public funds in the purchase of fertilizer business Fertinal. It did not identify the executives.

However, one of those executives was identified by people with knowledge of the matter as Lozoya. Two of those sources said Lozoya was barred from holding public office for 10 years but was not fined.

Many of the problems at Pemex Fertilizers, a subsidiary created under Pena Nieto’s liberalization of the energy sector, stem from its purchase of two fertilizer plants in 2013 and 2016, according to a scathing government audit of Pemex’s 2017 operations.

One of those plants was purchased from AHMSA.

Pemex burned through $665 million at its fertilizer unit, ignored consultants and made high-risk investments with no discernible business strategy, the report said.

The steps against Lozoya are among the first signs that the FIU, headed by Santiago Nieto, will look to make good on President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s promise to clean up rampant corruption, money laundering and the financing of organized crime.

Lopez Obrador has also vowed to revive Pemex by clamping down on over-spending, rampant fuel theft and graft.

AHMSA previously said in a statement the government had “improperly” frozen its bank accounts, saying the move was “unprecedented, arbitrary and violated (its) rights” and that it would defend its rights.

It said it did not know why its bank accounts had been frozen and denied all responsibility for improper acts attributed to the firm.

The FIU said it acted in accordance with the law and did not look to damage AHMSA’s workers, shareholders or suppliers and that it would free up the bank accounts of the firms’ workers on Tuesday.

“The Mexican government’s policy is zero tolerance for corruption and impunity,” the FIU’s Santiago Nieto said on Twitter.

Investigative news site Quinto Elemento Lab reported last August that AHMSA paid $3.7 million to a shell company allegedly set up by Brazil’s scandal-hit builder Odebrecht.

Reporting by Anthony Esposito; Editing by Rosalba O'Brien and Paul Tait

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