Oil Execs Sue Citgo for $400 Million Over Unlawful Imprisonment

The lawsuit contends the company "knowingly and substantially assisted with and participated in their unlawful arrest."

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MIAMI (AP) — Two Citgo oil executives detained for nearly five years in Venezuela have sued their former employer for more than $400 million, alleging it conspired to lure them to the South American country under a false pretext and then abandoned them as they endured horrendous prison conditions for crimes they didn't commit.

Brothers Alirio and Jose Luis Zambrano were among six executives at Citgo who traveled to Venezuela right before Thanksgiving in 2017 to attend a meeting at the headquarters of the company's parent, the Venezuelan-run-oil giant known as PDVSA. Once there, they were hauled from a Caracas conference room by masked security agents.

A Venezuelan judge later convicted the so-called Citgo 6 to between 8 and 13 years in prison following a trial denounced by the U.S. State Department as marred by delays and irregularities. The charges: involvement in a never-executed debt financing deal that would've risked seeing the Houston-based company seized by Wall Street creditors.

The lawsuit filed Thursday in a state district court in Houston comes as a federal court in Delaware is overseeing the auction of Citgo to satisfy nearly $21 billion in claims by creditors who have gone unpaid since the U.S. stripped control of the company from President Nicolas Maduro's government.

The Zambranos' complaint alleges that Citgo's top oil executives ordered the men to travel to Venezuela for what they were told was a mandatory meeting, knowing there was a strong chance they could be arrested. The Citgo and PDVSA bosses — all of them political heavyweights in Maduro's government — also allegedly supplied confidential financial documents to military intelligence officials that facilitated the men's arrest.

"Citgo knowingly and substantially assisted with and participated in their unlawful arrest," the lawsuit alleges. "Citgo knew the Zambranos were innocent from 'minute one' of these false charges — just as Citgo knew in the 2,556,000 minutes that followed."

Following the arrest, Citgo abandoned the families, ignoring their pleas for financial support for them to mount their defense, the lawsuit alleges.

The situation barely improved when a Citgo board appointed by the U.S.-backed opposition took control of the company as part of the Trump administration's efforts to oust Maduro and recognized instead then-National Assembly President Juan Guaido as Venezuela's legitimate leader. After numerous outreach attempts by their families, the jailed men, at considerable personal risk, penned a handwritten letter from prison asking Citgo's leadership to release documents that could prove their innocence.

"This heartfelt appeal of desperation was shockingly ignored," the 41-page complaint alleges.

A similar lawsuit against Citgo was filed last year by the Zambranos' former colleague and cellmate, Tomeu Vadell.

Citgo did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But lawyers for the company have pushed for financial sanctions against Vadell and his family for bringing what they have called "entirely meritless" claims that Citgo intentionally inflicted emotional distress on the men.

"Citgo's inaction knowing that these men were innocent and falsely accused speaks volumes," said Randy Sorrels, an attorney for the Zambrano family.

The Zambranos, Venezuelan-born and American citizens, were freed in 2022 as part of a prisoner swap for two nephews of Maduro's wife who had been imprisoned in the U.S. on narcotics charges.

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