AP Newsbreak: Swiss arrest 2 in alleged oil corruption case

Prosecutors in Switzerland have made two arrests after opening a criminal investigation into a Geneva-based consulting firm that allegedly served as a conduit for bribes between Venezuela's state oil company and some of its biggest clients.

A person familiar with the case said Monday that the Helsinge Inc. executives were arrested in recent days following allegations contained in a complaint filed by PDVSA, the Venezuelan state oil company. The person spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

The Geneva public prosecutor's office confirmed the probe against unspecified Helsinge executives on suspicion of corruption of foreign officials and money-laundering, but declined to comment further.

Helsinge was set up 14 years ago in Panama, with offices in Miami, Geneva and the English Channel island of Jersey, and later became the conduit by which some of PDVSA's biggest clients and suppliers allegedly obtained insider information on its tenders for oil exports and purchases of light crude.

According to the civil lawsuit filed last week in a Miami federal court by a trust linked to PDVSA, the scheme to fix prices, rig bids and eliminate competition, as well as steal highly confidential information by cloning the company's computer servers, cheated the socialist-run company of billions in lost revenue since 2004.

It was allegedly carried out by two former PDVSA traders, Francisco Morillo and Leonardo Baquero. Together with a Swiss citizen, Pierre Gay, they are listed on a commercial registry as Helsinge's representatives in Geneva.

In exchange for the sneak peak and other unfair advantages, Helsinge — which was not authorized to transact directly with PDVSA — allegedly charged hefty monthly retainers from what the lawsuit describes as "Oil Company Co-Conspirators," plus added compensation of up to $0.22 per barrel of oil product bought or sold.

Those alleged co-conspirators named as defendants in the case include Russia's Lukoil and Switzerland-based Glencore. It alleges they knew of and sanctioned actions by their oil traders and cites alleged communications between the traders and Helsinge discussing wire transfers and ways to alter the terms of future tenders before they were released to the general market.

The lawsuit comes as the U.S. expands a criminal investigation into corruption at PDVSA, and the Trump administration threatens crippling oil sanctions on the country sitting atop the world's largest crude reserves. At least $11 billion is believed to have gone missing from PDVSA the past decade, according to a 2016 report by the opposition-led National Assembly.

An email sent through the website of little-known Helsinge, which does not list a phone number or address for the company, went unanswered. Neither Lukoil nor Glencore responded to requests for comment on the suit.


Joshua Goodman contributed from Bogota, Colombia.