June 24, 2019 / 9:44 PM / a month ago

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

HOUSTON, June 24 (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.

Ramirez, who was Venezuela’s oil minister for 12 years and later served as its 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 Court 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.

Rosenthal initially awarded Harvest $472 million in damages in December, an amount he tripled in February.

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 job 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)

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