February 15, 2019 / 12:28 AM / 3 months ago

U.S. judge rules former Venezuelan oil minister owes $1.4 billion

HOUSTON, Feb 14 (Reuters) - A federal judge in Houston ordered a former Venezuelan oil minister this week to pay the owners of a defunct Houston oil company $1.4 billion in damages in a fraud suit, although it is unclear if or how the payment will ever be made.

U.S. District Court Judge Lee Rosenthal issued the default judgment on Wednesday after Rafael Ramirez did not contest Harvest Natural Resources’ claims, according to an opinion accompanying the ruling.

James Edmiston, Harvest Natural’s former chief executive and director, said on Thursday he was pleased with the order. Whether the shareholders of Harvest will ever receive a payment from Ramirez “is the $1.4 billion question,” he said.

Ramirez, in a message to Reuters, said he was not surprised by the order, but declined further comment.

Harvest’s suit claimed Venezuela refused to allow the company to sell its assets in the country from 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 this week.

Ramirez was appointed energy minister by late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, serving in that job until 2014. He 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 Rosalba O’Brien)

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