HOUSTON (AP) — One of the Citgo oil executives who was held for nearly five years in Venezuela has sued his company for $100 million, alleging it conspired in his detention and then abandoned him and his family as he wasted away in horrific prison conditions for a crime he didn’t commit.
Tomeu Vadell was one of six executives who worked for Houston-based Citgo when they were lured 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 six executives of embezzlement and sentenced them to between eight years and 13 years in prison in a trial marred by delays and irregularities.
In his lawsuit, Vadell’s lawyers allege Citgo lured him and the other executives, who became known as the Citgo 6, as part of a scheme to be used as “political pawns.”
The lawsuit alleges that while Citgo is based in the U.S., it remains a fully controlled subsidiary of Venezuelan-owned PDVSA. It says this relationship spurred Citgo to work with the state-run oil giant to wrongfully arrest and imprison him in retaliation for U.S. sanctions on Venezuela and also so that the company could “curry favor” with the administration of Nicolas Maduro, Venezuela’s president.
“We suffered a lot and continue to suffer,” Vadell said in a statement about himself and his family. Vadell retired from Citgo in December.
U.S. officials have accused Maduro of using the men as political bargaining chips to extract concessions from the United States.
One of the men was released in March 2022. The remaining five, including Vadell, were freed in October as part of a prisoner exchange with Venezuela.
“All while Citgo sat on the sidelines, merely observing the terrible consequences of its decision to sacrifice and abandon its loyal employee,” according to the lawsuit, which was filed in state district court in Houston.
In a statement, Citgo denied Vadell’s allegations and pushed back on his claims that the company is inextricably tied to Venezuelan-owned PDVSA, saying the lawsuit “irresponsibly equates Citgo, an American company based in Houston, with an authoritarian regime in Venezuela.”
“The Citgo 6 were our senior-most executives, and neither they nor Citgo, the company they led, are responsible for the arbitrary acts of Maduro’s repressive regime. Citgo’s leadership has supported Mr. Vadell and his family in significant financial and other ways,” the company said.
Five of the men, including Vadell, are dual Venezuelan-American nationals who had lived in the U.S. for many years, while one, former Citgo president Jose Pereira, is a permanent U.S. resident.
Vadell’s lawsuit alleges at one point he was held in an “overcrowded, windowless, basement dungeon cell with eight other men,” wasn’t allowed outside for months at a time and “wasted away, losing more than seventy pounds.”
Vadell accuses Citgo of refusing to pay his legal fees while he was tried and convicted in Venezuela and of not paying his salary while he was arrested and imprisoned, leaving his family in financial difficulty.
“We are grateful that the American government got Mr. Vadell out of this hell. It is time for Citgo to be held responsible for conspiring to wrongfully imprison this American citizen,” said Megan Moore, one of his attorneys. ___ Follow Juan A. Lozano on Twitter at https://twitter.com/juanlozano70.