Smugglers hoped to gain $3.15 million for illegal Iraqi oil
SAN DIEGO (AP) – Three businessmen stood to earn about $3.15 million if they completed the illegal purchase of 160,000 metric tons of Iraqi oil that was to be sold in Asia, U.S. officials said Thursday.
The three, including a ranking member of Thailand’s top opposition party, have each been charged with conspiring to violate United Nations sanctions with a scheme to buy more than $20 million in Iraqi oil.
The men came to San Diego earlier this week for what they thought would be a meeting to make final arrangements to purchase the oil, said John Mallamo, the assistant special agent in charge of U.S. Customs in San Diego.
”It was just the first of what these individuals hoped would be a repetitive business,” Mallamo said.
They expected to meet an executive of an international trading firm but the executive was actually a Customs agent.
Authorities on Tuesday arrested Amnard Vorachard, 58, of Thailand; Surasak Nanaukool, 56, a member of Thailand’s opposition New Aspiration Party; and Simon Tan, 44, of Singapore.
The oil smuggling investigation began four years ago when Vorachard, who represents Thailand-based Action Dynamic Enterprises Group, was under surveillance for another matter.
Vorachard then allegedly discovered that the undercover agent had previously been involved in Iraqi oil transactions and asked about such a purchase, Mallamo said.
All three men stood to split about 15 percent of the oil’s total sale price, which ranged from $21 million to $23 million depending on oil prices the day of the meeting.
Mallamo would not say why Vorachard was originally being investigated, but that case has been closed.
The men, who made an appearance in federal court Wednesday but did not enter pleas, were being held without bond. A detention hearing was scheduled for Monday.
Iraq can sell oil only under U.N. financial controls, with proceeds used for funding humanitarian programs and Gulf War reparations. The sanctions, imposed after the invasion of Kuwait in 1990, cannot be lifted until the U.N. Security Council certifies Iraq is free of weapons of mass destruction.
The smuggled oil was to be shipped to Thailand in two tankers and a front company in the Cayman Islands would be established to sell the oil in Asia using phony certificates of origin, U.S. officials said.
A court-appointed lawyer representing Tan said the undercover agent lured the three men to California under false pretenses.
”All three of them thought they were involved with a legitimate representative of the U.S. government,” said defense lawyer Mark Chambers.
”They would not have come here had it not been for the agent’s misrepresentation of what he could do,” Chambers said.
Nanaukool’s court-appointed lawyer, William Vurgener, declined to discuss the depth of his client’s involvement. ”I do think that when the facts come out my client will be vindicated,” Vurgener said.
A lawyer for Vorachard did not immediately return a call from The Associated Press seeking comment.