MIAMI — Three American defense contractors held for five years by leftist rebels in Colombia moved closer to collecting on a $318 million judgment against their former captors when a U.S. Supreme Court justice rebuffed an appeal by a sanctioned Venezuelan businessman whose assets they seek to claim.
Justice Clarence Thomas refused to hear an emergency appeal by Samark Lopez, letting stand an order by a federal appeals court immediately turning over $53 million from the businessman’s previously seized U.S. bank accounts, though the appeals court judgment is being contested.
Yet his defenders say there is no evidence — and no conviction — directly connecting Lopez to the rebels who held the three Americans other than his relationship with a Venezuelan official who allegedly did have ties to the group.
And if the men succeed in gaining the money, it could allow victims of the rebels to move ahead of Venezuela’s creditors and opponents of President Nicolas Maduro who are seeking to recover assets allegedly stolen through corruption, according to Russ Dallen, the head of Caracas Capital Markets, which closely monitors litigation involving Venezuela. He noted the decision in a report issued Thursday.
Attorneys for Lopez are now pinning their hopes on a second emergency appeal filed Tuesday to Justice Sonia Sotomayor in accordance with Supreme Court rules.
Keith Stansell, Marc Gonsalves and Thomas Howes were taken captive by guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, when their airplane crash landed due to engine trouble during a drug-monitoring flight in 2003. Their pilot, Tom Janis, was killed by the rebels.
The three employees of Northrop Grumman were freed 12 years ago Thursday along with several other captives including former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt in a daring rescue by Colombia’s army.
In 2012, a federal judge in Florida awarded the men $318 million to be paid from bank accounts and assets seized from individuals linked to the FARC, a U.S.-designated terrorist group.
But they had mostly been unable to collect until President Donald Trump signed into law in 2018 the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act, which enabled victims of terror groups to attach assets seized by the U.S. government under the drug kingpin act.
The new law allowed the men to go after Lopez’s blocked assets in the U.S., which include a $269 million Citibank account, two yachts, an aircraft and luxury real estate in Miami.
Lopez is a powerful businessman in Venezuela whose fortune soared thanks to government contracts in the past two decades of socialist rule. He was sanctioned by the U.S. in 2017 as a “drug kingpin” alongside Venezuela’s then vice president and now oil minister, Tareck El Aissami, for allegedly laundering proceeds from international narcotics trafficking.
But Lopez’s links to the FARC are tenuous, according to his defenders, including Dick Gregorie, a former Miami prosecutor with a long history of putting narcos behind bars. During last year’s trial on the men’s bid for his assets, experts for the plaintiffs including a former Drug Enforcement Administration agent claimed Lopez had only indirect ties to the guerrillas through his friendship with El Aissami, who U.S. officials have long believed assisted the FARC in moving cocaine through Venezuela.
The FARC wasn’t mentioned by name when Lopez and El Aissami were sanctioned in 2017 and the only known criminal charges against the two men is for chartering private flights in the U.S. in violation of sanctions, not drug trafficking.
“Notwithstanding these clear facts, the Plaintiffs orchestrated the seizure of Mr. Lopez’s U.S.-based assets without ever proving, as required by law, that Mr. Lopez provided material support or assistance to the FARC,” Lopez’s attorneys said in a statement.
They added that Lopez has never provided any assistance to the FARC and condemns their “terrorist acts.” They said Lopez also denied ever engaging in drug trafficking or laundering money on behalf of drug trafficking activity.
The attorneys called on organizations in the legal community to review the matter and join their client in his efforts to prevent the ability of plaintiffs to seize assets without proof of any assistance to a terrorist organization.
Joshua Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman