Energy

EXCLUSIVE Mexico probing Vitol over false import documents - tax chief

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MEXICO CITY, Aug 5 (Reuters) - Mexico's government is investigating the world's largest independent energy trader Vitol over "irregularities" in the documenting of its refined oil products entering Mexico that could lead to criminal charges for tax evasion, the country's tax chief told Reuters.

The probe of Vitol (VITOLV.UL) is part of a drive to investigate alleged import tax violations in Mexico that targets companies including fuel providers and energy traders, just as high-profile players in the sector are increasingly under scrutiny globally for corruption allegations.

Raquel Buenrostro, who heads the Tax Administration Service (SAT) in Mexico, the world's fourth-largest importer of refined oil products, said some of Vitol's records for imports had discrepancies that the company was unable to clear up.

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"They presented many inconsistencies in documentation of imported products and could never provide proof or explain," Buenrostro said in an interview. She said that the case involved false documentation but declined to comment further to avoid jeopardizing the investigation.

Buenrostro said the SAT has sent its allegations about Vitol to the attorney general's office which could determine whether to file charges for evading taxes by trafficking in contraband goods, a crime that can be punishable by jail time.

Vitol, which is based in Geneva, denied any wrongdoing. It said the allegations dated back a couple of years and are related to imports classified by another company it worked with.

"We are in litigation with the counterparty that misclassified the imports," a Vitol spokeswoman said. She did not name the other company nor provide further details.

Mexico's attorney general's office did not respond to queries from Reuters about the Vitol case or the complaints against other companies.

DIFFICULT CASES

Taxes lost through the false classification of expensive refined products like gasoline and diesel as lower value hydrocarbons by some energy commodity traders is costing the Mexican government roughly $2 billion a year in revenues, Buenrostro said.

When asked if Vitol took part in this practice, she said it was committing "irregularities" with the same "modus operandi" as other companies being investigated.

In total, Buenrostro said the SAT has presented about 17 complaints to the attorney general's office for this practice, and was preparing another five, targeting companies including fuel providers and energy traders.

She said it is up to the attorney general's office to determine who could be responsible for alleged false documentation.

She did not specify when the cases were filed and declined to identify the other companies under investigation.

"In the investigations it will come out who it really was who falsified the document, in what moment it was falsified, etcetera," Buenrostro said in response to a question about the probe into Vitol. "It could be anyone from a public official to a top executive of the company," she said.

She gave no more details about the possible role of specific people in alleged irregularities in Vitol's import documentation.

Vitol's tax affairs in Mexico have been under the microscope since at least 2019, said Buenrostro, who began her post in January of the following year.

An administrative investigation into Vitol at the SAT is still underway, and the tax agency has dropped Vitol from its registry of approved importers, Buenrostro said.

Without that approval, customs agents cannot issue a key clearance form and any goods imported by the company would be deemed illegal.

Vitol has not approached the SAT about fixing its status, Buenrostro added.

Houston-based Vitol Americas agreed to pay $164 million in December to resolve an investigation by the U.S. Justice Department and a parallel one in Brazil related to bribes paid to officials in Brazil, Ecuador and Mexico.

Vitol said at that time it was committed to upholding the law and had cooperated with authorities.

Vitol has maintained a deep trade relationship for decades with Mexican oil company Petroleos Mexicanos [RIC:RIC:PEMX.UL], known as Pemex, and other state firms for supplying fuel to Mexico, including ethane, liquefied petroleum gas, gasoline and diesel.

Reuters reported in March that Pemex was looking to renegotiate some contracts with Vitol, and would stop doing business with the company if it could not reach an agreement. read more

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Reporting by Stefanie Eschenbacher and Daina Beth Solomon; Additional reporting by Julia Payne in London and Marianna Parraga in Mexico City Editing by Daniel Flynn and Alistair Bell

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