Ex-Gunvor Oil Trader Claims His Supervisors Knew About Bribes

A former Gunvor Group Ltd. employee who helped bribe Ecuadorian officials to win oil deals told co-conspirators that certain executives at the Swiss trading company were aware of their activities, according to secret recordings unsealed in U.S. court filings.

Raymond Kohut, 68, pleaded guilty in New York on Tuesday, telling a federal judge he worked with two Gunvor supervisors and two consultants to pay bribes to secure business with state-owned Petroecuador from 2012 to August 2020. While no others have been charged publicly, the newly unsealed documents show two unidentified co-conspirators are cooperating with prosecutors.

Kohut discussed with his co-conspirators several times how they would conceal their bribery and money laundering from Gunvor’s compliance personnel, which had begun an internal investigation in late 2019, the U.S. government said. Prosecutors didn’t disclose who recorded some of the phone calls and in-person meetings.

“During those conversations, KOHUT stated, in substance, that certain executives at Trading Company were aware of the bribery schemes,” said FBI Special Agent James Kelley, the author of initial criminal complaint against Kohut in August.

Gunvor, one of the world’s largest independent oil traders, said it is cooperating with the U.S. Justice Department probe and that the company has “terminated its relationship” with business-development agents involved in the case. Geneva-based Gunvor isn’t named in the Kohut criminal court documents, where prosecutors refer to it as “Trading Company.”

Kohut’s guilty plea and details of his case represent another reputational setback for Gunvor and its efforts to move past previous corruption scandals. The company paid $95 million to Swiss prosecutors in 2019 to settle a long-running bribery case involving payoffs in the Republic of Congo and Ivory Coast. Other major oil traders including Vitol Group, Glencore Plc and Trafigura Group have faced similar allegations of bribery and corruption.

A federal judge in Brooklyn unsealed documents in the Kohut case late Tuesday that had remained secret since Kohut was first arrested and charged in the U.S. in August.

Among the records released to the public was a description of a meeting Kohut had on Feb. 18, 2020, with two consultants at a Coral Gables, Florida, restaurant to discuss how to handle the Gunvor compliance inquiry.

“Kohut commented, in substance, that when he asked his former supervisor at Trading Company whether the supervisor knew about payments to government officials, his supervisor said ‘I don’t know if I want to know,’” Kelley said in the unsealed documents. “Later in the conversation, Kohut stated that he believed that an executive of Trading Company ‘knew, one hundred percent.’”

‘What’s the Big Deal?’

One consultant said to Kohut: “Don’t tell me that the [Trading Company executive] doesn’t know what it is that we do here in...I mean...who we pay,” the documents show. Kohut replied, “Believe me...when I was there with [Trading Company executives], [the Trading Company executive] said, ‘What’s the big deal?’” according to the complaint.

Prosecutors collected other evidence in the case, including Kohut telephone calls recorded by Gunvor as well as emails and WhatsApp instant messages he exchanged with co-conspirators.

Kohut was first arrested in August in Florida, detained at a federal jail in Brooklyn, and then released on bond in October, prosecutors said.

Kohut’s lawyer, Adam Fels, declined to comment.

Kohut worked for Gunvor as a manager and crude oil trader in Houston and the Bahamas for Gunvor from 2009 until 2019, prosecutors said. He also worked as an agent and independent contractor of a Gunvor affiliate, according to government filings.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

BQ Install

Bloomberg Quint

Add BloombergQuint App to Home screen.