June 24, 2019 / 10:03 PM / 21 days ago

Ex-Venezuelan oil minister asks U.S. court to set aside $1.4 billion judgment

HOUSTON (Reuters) - Former Venezuelan Oil Minister Rafael Ramirez asked a federal judge in Houston on Monday to set aside a $1.4 billion default verdict against him in a fraud suit brought by a defunct Houston oil company, according to court documents.

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's representative to the United Nations Rafael Ramirez is seen as he attends a meeting with Venezuela's Foreign Minister Jorge Arreaza (not pictured) during a meeting of accredited diplomatic teams in Caracas, Venezuela August 12, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins/File Photo

Ramirez, who was Venezuela’s oil minister for 12 years and later served as the country’s foreign minister and U.N. ambassador, said Harvest Natural Resources Inc and HNR Energia BV had failed to properly serve him notice of the lawsuit.

“Given that Ramirez was not properly served and that he lives in Europe out of the public eye, his default was not willful, and he has acted as expeditiously as he could to address the default in light of the issues caused by his being abroad,” a court filing said.

Dane Ball, a partner with law firm Smyser Kaplan & Veselka LLP, which represents Harvest, declined to comment.

U.S. District Judge Lee Rosenthal issued the default judgment on Feb. 13 after Ramirez did not contest Harvest Natural Resources’ claims, according to an opinion accompanying the ruling.

Harvest’s suit claimed Venezuela had refused to allow the company to sell its assets in the country since 2012, leading it to lose $472 million. It accused Ramirez and others of seeking a $10 million bribe to approve the transaction.

Ramirez’s attorney Abbe Lowell, of Winston & Strawn, said Ramirez deserves his day in court.

“We are asking the court to reconsider its ruling so Ambassador Ramirez can have the chance to defend himself in court, an option he has so far been denied,” Lowell said in a statement.

Shares in Harvest ceased trading in May 2017 and the company began a three-year process of liquidating assets and winding up remaining issues from the close of the business.

Ramirez was appointed energy minister by late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez in 2002, serving in that post until 2014. He was briefly foreign minister under President Nicolas Maduro and later was the country’s ambassador to the United Nations, but left after being accused of corruption by Venezuelan officials amid a purge of executives at state oil firm PDVSA.

Reporting by Erwin Seba; Editing by Tom Brown and Leslie Adler

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