Exec pleads guilty in oil smuggling scheme

HOUSTON Valley Fuels Ltd. President Stephen Pechenik helped receive and coordinate the movement of stolen petroleum products, according to federal prosecutors in Houston.

His guilty plea is part of a binational investigation into smuggled oil that is stolen from Mexico's state oil monopoly Petroleos Mexicanos, or Pemex, transported across the border and sold to U.S. refineries.

The Mexican government says drug cartel members and other criminals are responsible for many of the oil thefts by tapping remote pipelines, sometimes building pipelines of their own, and siphoning off hundreds of millions of dollars worth of oil each year.

Pechenik faces up to five years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000 when he is sentenced on Jan. 22 for one count of conspiracy to receive and sell stolen petroleum products, such as condensate. Condensate is a liquid hydrocarbon that refiners can blend with crude oil as they produce fuel and other products.

"Stephen Pechenik, who has been in business for many, many years, regrets his misconduct and is very remorseful about it and entered a plea of guilty because he knew that he did something wrong and wants to make amends by admitting to it," said Dennis Kainen, Pechenik's attorney.

Kainen declined to comment on why Pechenik got involved in the scheme.

According to court documents that were unsealed in the case, Pechenik helped coordinate the transport of stolen petroleum condensate by tanker trucks from Mexico to the United States and arranged in February and March for eight tanker trucks filled with the product to be delivered to an unidentified U.S. company.

Kainen said a civil action from May in which the U.S. government seized $102,525 from Valley Fuels as proceeds from the sale of the stolen condensate is still pending.

Pechenik was the third person in the last two weeks to plead guilty to the same charge in the investigation.

Arnoldo Maldonado, 45, who worked for Y Gas & Oil, a South Texas company based in Edinburg, arranged for 22 tanker trucks filled with stolen petroleum condensate to be delivered to unidentified U.S. companies between January and March, according to unsealed court documents. He is set to be sentenced Jan. 8.

Jonathan Dappen, 29, of McAllen, who worked for Petro Salum, helped deliver 17 tanker trucks filled with stolen petroleum condensate to Continental Fuels, which has an office in Houston, court documents said. The deliveries were made between January and March. He is set to be sentenced Jan. 15.

In May, Donald Schroeder, president of Houston-based Trammo Petroleum, became the first person to plead guilty in the investigation. He agreed to pay a $2 million fine to the U.S. government while he awaits sentencing on Dec. 18.

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