Freed former oil executive sues Houston-based Citgo over imprisonment in Venezuela

Tomeu Vadell, one of the so-called “Citgo 6,” is asking for more than $100 million in a personal injury lawsuit filed in a Harris County court.


FILE – In this Feb. 15, 2019 file photo, Dennysse Vadell sits between her daughters Veronica, right, and Cristina holding a digital photograph of father and husband Tomeu was jailed in Venezuela at the time, in Katy, Texas.

One of the former Citgo executives who was imprisoned by the Venezuelan government for nearly five years has filed a lawsuit seeking more than $100 million in damages from the Houston-based petroleum company, claiming it conspired to have him detained under false pretenses, did not defend him publicly and abandoned his family financially while he languished in a prison cell as a geopolitical pawn.

Tomeu Vadell of Lake Charles, Louisiana, along with his wife and their adult daughter who lives in Houston, filed the personal injury lawsuit last Friday in a Harris County district court. They are being represented by Houston attorney Rusty Hardin, who in a statement described Citgo's actions and in some instances inactions in the case as "barbaric."

Citgo is a subsidiary of PDVSA, an oil company owned by the Venezuelan government, and Vadell and some of his U.S.-based colleagues were called to a meeting in Caracas in November 2017. While there they were arrested and accused of trying to make a deal that would financially inhibit the parent company, and late in 2020, they were convicted of crimes by a Venezuelan judge and sentenced to lengthy prison sentences.

One member of the "Citgo 6," as the six executives have become known, was released by the regime of Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro last March. Vadell and the other four men, all of whom are Houston-area residents or have family in the region, were freed in October in a prisoner swap between the U.S. and Venezuela.

"My father is a survivor," Vadell's daughter, Cristina Vadell of Houston, said in a statement about the lawsuit. "What I saw was that Citgo delivered him and left him to die and they have not done enough. We tried for years to get Citgo to work with us to get him out, but it took third parties, the government and finally the President of the United States."

It is unclear if any of the other executives or their families will pursue similar legal action against Citgo. Carlos Añez, the stepson of freed executive Jorge Toledo of Sugar Land, said Wednesday his family does not plan to do so at this time.

A relative of brothers Alirio Jose and Jose Luis Zambrano, the latter of whom lives in the Houston area, along with a relative of Houston-area resident Gustavo Cardenas, declined to comment Wednesday when asked about that possibility. The other detained and now-freed executive is Houston-area resident Jose Pereira, who could not be reached for comment.

Citgo said in a statement that it welcomed Tomeu Vadell home and is "grateful" he has been united with his family, but disagrees with the lawsuit and how it characterizes the company's role in his imprisonment and that of the other men.

"We greatly sympathize with Mr. Vadell for everything he and his family have been through," Citgo said in its statement. "That said, we disagree with this lawsuit, which 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 Vadells claim in their lawsuit that Citgo ignored repeated requests to have the company pay for his legal expenses and stopped paying his salary in May 2018. The company later provided financial help and other forms of assistance, beginning in 2019, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit also claims that Citgo had advance knowledge of plans to arrest Vadell and the other men, while also knowing they were not guilty of any wrongdoing, and that the company did not advocate for their release while they spent more than four years either in jail or under house arrest in Venezuela. Vadell was subjected to physical and mental torture while being denied basic healthcare and other needs, losing more than 70 pounds, according to the lawsuit, which said his first grandchild was born during his imprisonment.

"We suffered a lot and continue to suffer," Vadell said in a statement.

Escalating geopolitical tensions and U.S. sanctions against Venezuela and PDVSA precipitated the imprisonment of the Citgo executives, the lawsuit claims. All of the men are Venezuela natives who had become either dual citizens or permanent U.S. residents, with Vadell having become a U.S. citizen in 2007.

The lawsuit cites negligence, gross negligence, false imprisonment, intentional infliction of emotional distress and conspiracy and aiding and abetting as causes of action against Citgo. It asks for more than $100 million in monetary relief for damages such as past and future medical expenses, physical pain and mental anguish and lost wages and future earning capacity.

"We have laid out in his lawsuit all the ways Citgo was grossly negligent by abandoning Mr. Vadell and his family, knowing full well he was being held in a dungeon, tortured and starved while being used as a political pawn," attorney Megan Moore, of Rusty Hardin & Associates, said in a statement. "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."

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