Venezuelan tycoon sues US to lift narcotics sanctions

Jun 30, 2021, 1:39 PM | Updated: 6:17 pm

MIAMI (AP) — A top Venezuelan businessman close to President Nicolas Maduro’s government has sued the U.S. Department of Treasury, alleging he’s the victim of a false campaign identifying him as a international narcotics kingpin.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday by Samark López in Washington federal court said sanctions in 2017 designating him a “drug kingpin” had devastated his wealth, reputation and economic livelihood.

The lawsuit raises the stakes in one of the most far-reaching of dozens of sanctions cases brought against Venezuelan insiders in recent years, a key factor in furtive attempts by the Biden administration to support a negotiated solution to the country’s long running political impasse.

The Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control, or OFAC, in 2017 accused López of serving as a “frontman” for his friend and then Vice President Tareck El Aissami, who was sanctioned the same day.

The two were later criminally charged in New York federal court for allegedly breaking those sanctions when they used several Miami based vendors to arrange chartered flights to Russia and elsewhere. In 2019, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement added them to their list of the most-wanted fugitives.

The 46-year-old López, who also has Italian citizenship, has maintained his innocence throughout and indeed neither he nor El Aissami have ever been charged with narcotics trafficking or money laundering — a tenant of the lawsuit alleging he was being unfairly targeted.

Nonetheless, López has seen more than $160 million in U.S. assets — including a Gulfstream 200 jet, two yachts and a $12.5 million Miami mansion — seized by U.S. courts and handed over to Americans pursuing separate legal claims against the drug-funded Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia. The 2017 sanctions against López and El Aissami make no mention of the Colombian rebel group even as they tie El Aissami to cocaine shipments carried out by Mexican cartels as well as previously targeted Colombian and Venezuelan drug traffickers.

“OFAC’s allegations and its supporting evidence are false, if not entirely fabricated,” according to the complaint. Lopez is “an international businessman whose reputation has been maligned and whose livelihood has been seriously threatened by Defendants’ unlawful actions and libelous claims.”

The complaint also argues that López couldn’t have acted on behalf of a drug kingpin, as alleged by Treasury, because El Aissami was not a sanctioned trafficker at the time of their alleged business dealings together.

Russ Dallen, who tracks litigation involving Venezuela as head of Miami-based Caracas Capital Markets, says López’s lawsuit may be more about accessing the classified intelligence that the U.S. government has about his and El Aissami’s alleged involvement in drug trafficking than actually getting the sanctions removed.

He pointed out that a lawsuit seeking the delisting of another target of U.S. sanctions, Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska, was recently dismissed by a federal judge who ruled that U.S. officials had acted lawfully. López is being represented by the same attorney, Washington-based sanctions expert Erich Ferrari.

Unlike in criminal proceedings, targets of sanctions don’t have the same due process rights to evidence and information. However, designations found to be arbitrary or an abuse of discretion are considered unlawful.

Much of the evidence compiled against López came from heavily-redacted reports and news reports, according to the complaint. Among the relief sought by the lawsuit is a court order seeking to disclose heavily redacted portions of memos used by OFAC to support its designation.

The U.S. Treasury Department declined to comment.

Follow Goodman on Twitter: @APjoshgoodman

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Venezuelan tycoon sues US to lift narcotics sanctions