U.S. Probes CITGO Parent

Could PDVSA investigation spark another round of sale speculation?

Greg Lindenberg, Editor, CSP

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CARACAS, Venezuela -- U.S. authorities have launched a series of wide-ranging investigations into whether leaders in financially troubled Venezuela used state oil company Petróleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA) to loot billions of dollars from the country through kickbacks and other schemes, people familiar with the matter told The Wall Street Journal.

The investigation could jeopardize PDVSA's CITGO Petroleum Corp. assets in the United States, said a Bloomberg News report.

The probes, carried out by federal law enforcement in multiple jurisdictions around the United States, are also attempting to determine whether officials used PDVSA and its foreign bank accounts for other illegal purposes, including black-market currency schemes and laundering drug money, the people told the newspaper.

No charges have been made public in the PDVSA matter and it is possible none will be filed.

Earlier this month, federal prosecutors from New York, Washington, Missouri and Texas met to coordinate actions and share evidence and witnesses in the various PDVSA-related probes, three people familiar with the matter said. The meeting also included agents from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) and other agencies, said the sources.

The investigations are taking place as Venezuela’s economy is on pace to contract by 10% this year and inflation to hit 160%, according to the report, citing International Monetary Fund estimates. The country is crippled by a collapsing currency, moribund industry and an inability to pay for imports of medicine and food.

Under Rafael Ramírez, the former president of PDVSA, the company completed a transformation from one of the world’s most-efficient oil companies to an arm of the late President Hugo Chávez’s socialist revolution, the Journal said. Petrodollars went to pay for housing, appliances and food for the poor, efforts that won voters at election time but starved the oil industry of funds needed for investment and maintenance.

The investigation could give rise to renewed speculation about the sale of CITGO Petroleum Corp., PDVSA's North American unit.

CITGO probably would be valued around $8 billion, Gurpal Dosanjh, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence, told the news agency. CITGO valued its assets at $8.1 billion in a July 2014 bond offering.

PDVSA and CITGO spokespersons could not be reached for comment, Bloomberg said.

In August 2014, Ramírez, by this time Venezuela’s Petroleum Minister, said PDVSA would sell CITGO to help the cash-strapped country if it receives a good offer. The suggestion set of a round of speculation as to who might buy CITGO.

The auction drew interest from U.S. refiners Marathon Petroleum Corp., HollyFrontier Corp. and Valero Energy Corp., as well as private-equity firms TPG and Riverstone Holdings LLC., which teamed up to bid, people familiar with the process told the Journal in January.

Although several suitors submitted bids, Venezuela scrapped the auction in favor of a plan for CITGO to raise $2.5 billion in debt.

Houston-based CITGO has three U.S. refineries with combined capacity of approximately 750,000 barrels per day. They are in Lemont, Ill., Lake Charles, La., and Corpus Christi, Texas. CITGO also owns a network of terminals and pipelines that would be highly attractive as demand for energy infrastructure rises on surging output of domestic crudes. Independent CITGO-branded marketers sell motor fuels through nearly 6,000 gas stations and convenience stores in 30 states.

CITGO was founded in 1910 when pioneer oilman Henry L. Doherty created the Cities Service Co. By 1965, Doherty decided that the company needed to change its marketing brand, so Cities Service Co. became CITGO. Occidental Petroleum bought the company in 1982, and CITGO became a wholly owned subsidiary handling refining, marketing and transportation. In 1983, the company was sold once again to Southland Corp. as a way to provide a constant supply of gasoline to Southland's 7-Eleven convenience stores. In 1986, Southland sold a 50% interest in CITGO to PDVSA, the national oil company of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, with the company acquiring the remaining half in 1990.