Ecuador detains comptroller, ex-minister in Petroecuador probe

·2-min read
FILE PHOTO: Ecuador's capital city, Quito, is pictured with the Cotopaxi volcano in background

QUITO (Reuters) -Ecuador on Tuesday detained the country's comptroller and a former energy minister as part of an investigation into corruption at three state institutions, including oil company Petroecuador, the national prosecutor's office said.

The arrests come after an employee of trading house Gunvor Group pleaded guilty to U.S. charges of involvement in a scheme to bribe Ecuadorean officials to win business from Petroecuador, part of a broader U.S. probe into merchant trading firms' relationships with Latin American state commodities companies.

Ecuadorean prosecutors said on Twitter the arrests took place early Tuesday morning and included raids of homes and offices in capital Quito and Guayaquil, the financial center. Prosecutors said the investigation into bribery allegations began in June 2019.

Prosecutors said they arrested eight people in total, including Ecuador's comptroller and a former presidential secretary who they identified as Pablo C. and Jose A.B., respectively.

The current comptroller is Pablo Celi, and Jose Augusto Briones served as secretary for President Lenin Moreno before being named energy minister in November 2019, a post he resigned in March 2020.

An attorney for Celi called authorities' actions "excessive" and said that Celi's 4-month-old granddaughter was present in his home at the time of the raid.

"Prosecutors have not yet indicated the reasons for which he was arrested," the attorney, Jorge Luis Ortega, told reporters.

Reuters could not reach Augusto Briones for comment.

Petroecuador had said on Monday before the arrests that it was cooperating with authorities to defend the country's institutions against corruption.

Moreno, who leaves office on May 24, said in a tweet on Tuesday that he respected the independence and autonomy of state institutions and that the government would cooperate with prosecutors.

The comptroller's office had no immediate comment on the case.

(Reporting by Alexandra Valencia in Quito, Writing by Luc Cohen, Editing by Matthew Lewis and Angus MacSwan)