Colombian Oil Firm Recruits FBI to Weed Out Bribery


EspañolThe Colombian government and Attorney General’s Office have joined forces with the US Department of Justice (DOJ) to uncover a wide-ranging case of alleged transnational bribery that contravenes corruption and anti-bribery legislation in both countries.

Authorities claim the Colombian firm Petrotiger paid state oil company Ecopetrol US$333.500 in bribe money.
Authorities claim the Colombian firm Petrotiger paid state oil company Ecopetrol US$333.500 in bribe money. (Commons)

The DOJ’s criminal division, an attorney from the New Jersey District Court, and the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) have charged three former managers of the PetroTiger Ltd. firm, a consulting service based in the US Virgin Islands, with paying a bribe of approximately US$333,500 to managers of state Colombian oil firm Ecopetrol in order to secure an oil-service contract worth $39.6 million.

Former co-CEO Knut Hammarskjold was arrested in November 2014, PetroTiger lawyer Gregory Weisman pled guilty in a federal court in New Jersey in the same month, and former CEO Joseph Sigelman was also arrested on January 3 in the Philippines.

According to Colombian newspaper El Tiempo, David Durán, a former Ecopetrol executive, is alleged to have received the money in question. Sigelman and Hammarskjold were accused of conspiring to commit electronic fraud, conspiring to break the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), and conspiracy to launder money. Weisman has pled guilty to the former two charges, and faces up to five years in jail.

Ecopetrol: Accuse Thyself

On Monday, February 9, Ecopetrol declared itself the victim of a bribery scandal and reported that it had asked government-transparency officials to investigate corrupt activities which took place in 2010. At that time it became known that a group of company officials had made irregular payments as part of an illicit arrangement with PetroTiger Services of Colombia Ltd. and the affiliated Mansarovar Energy Colombia Ltd.

The information was corroborated in an interview with W Radio given by Joel Schectman. The Wall Street Journal reporter, who specializes in corruption, shared video evidence which will be used against Sigelman in court.

Shectman contended that companies accused of foreign bribery tend to negotiate a settlement with the Department of Justice “behind the scenes,” allowing them to avoid criminal prosecution in exchange for cooperation. The reporter described the case as “unusual,” given that it was the company that made itself available to the FBI and implicated the two senior officials involved.

The evidence against Gregory Weisman was discovered by a US firm that was contracted by Colombia to carry out an internal investigation into wrongdoing by PetroTiger and Ecopetrol.

The Key Suspects

Shectman explained that in 2012 the FBI told Weisman that it had all the evidence it needed to prove his involvement. At that point, Weisman  agreed to cooperate with the investigation and wear a hidden camera while generating a conversation with Sigelman and prompting him to mention incriminating details out loud. The recorded video will be used as evidence in the trial due to take place in April.

The expert explained that Weisman is a key piece in the investigation, because he was a lawyer and former member of Sigelman’s management, as well as part of the PetroTiger foundation in Colombia.

David Orlando Durán Flórez, a former Ecopetrol worker who quit the firm in April 2011, and his wife, Hohanna Navaro Carvajal, are accused of receiving money from PetroTiger and facilitating the illicit transactions.

Carvajal is a stylist of around 40 years of age, the owner of a spa in Bucaramanga, Colombia. However, according to a Newark federal district judge, in 2010, PetroTiger attempted to make it seem as if she was qualified to carry out technical consulting work.

According to el Tiempothe FBI has proved that the supposed consulting payments made by Joseph Sigelman worth US$335,000 (COL$798 million) were part of a bribe handed to Durán Flórez, Carvajal’s husband. PetroTiger sought to gain approval for its US$39 million contract with Chinese-Indian firm Masarovar.

The whereabouts of Durán and Navarro are currently unknown. The couple married in 2012 when they had already received part of the bribe.

Marcos Mauricio Vesga Niño, a former PetroTiger manager, is also involved and decided to hand documents in to the FBI and the attorney general which prove the existence of illicit payments, including emails and fake receipts.

Vesga was the director of various projects, including one known as the Palo de Agua and another concealed under the name WET00000048, presumably the name of the account from which they money came to pay the bribes. His testimony was one of several that will prove crucial to the Sigelman judgement, which opens in April.

Sigelman Incriminated

El Tiempo revealed on Tuesday, February 10, that federal investigators are convinced that Sigelman is trying to obtain in Colombia the evidence that the FBI has gathered against him.

The newspaper argued that Sigelman’s defense “has bombarded the implicated companies in this scandal with messages, asking them to hand over any kind of information.”

Shectman suggested that in April’s trial, Sigelman’s lawyers will be able to say in his defense that PetroTiger’s management is out for revenge. The expert also indicated that his legal defense will likely rejoice that Sigelman seems not to have been fully informed about the relationship with the two companies involved, and could even suggest that since he does not speak Spanish he had no clear idea who David Durán was nor with how Ecopetrol usually managed operations.

Former Uribista Minister Sucked In

Local daily El Colombiano revealed that Luis Guillermo Plata, former Colombian minister for Business, Industry, and Tourism under Álvaro Uribe Vélez and a former member of the PetroTiger board of directors, received US$1 million for ensuring that the owner of Canadian pensions fund Alberta Investment Management Corp could acquire 47 percent of PetroTiger, according to Sigelman’s declarations to the FBI.

The Primera Página news agency wrote that Plata came to the company after the US$333,500 bribe to the Ecopetrol worker, and alleged that the Canadian company invested US$85 million for a 43-percent stake in PetroTiger, raising questions over the transparency of the transaction and Plata’s role in it.

Plata responded that the accusations were false and without foundation, arguing that the board of directors to which he belonged began the investigations itself.

Schectman stated that there is no proof that Plata was involved in the bribery scheme, at least in the United States, and highlighted the role of PetroTiger management in facilitating investigations.

Translated by Laurie Blair. Edited by Guillermo Jimenez.

Editor’s note: this article has been updated to correct the description of Joel Schectman and what he meant by “behind the scenes.”

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