ABECASSIS v. WYATT, CIVIL ACTION NO. H-09-3884

CourtUnited States District Courts. 5th Circuit. United States District Courts. 5th Circuit. Southern District of Texas
Writing for the CourtLee H. Rosenthal
PartiesODELIA ABECASSIS, et al., Plaintiffs, V. OSCAR S. WYATT, JR., et al., Defendants.
Docket NumberCIVIL ACTION NO. H-09-3884
Decision Date31 March 2011

ODELIA ABECASSIS, et al., Plaintiffs,
V.
OSCAR S. WYATT, JR., et al., Defendants.

CIVIL ACTION NO. H-09-3884

UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF TEXAS
HOUSTON DIVISION

Dated: March 31, 2011


MEMORANDUM AND OPINION

This suit arises out of terrorist attacks in Israel between 2000 and 2003. The plaintiffs are Americans injured in the attacks and their relatives. The defendants are companies and individuals involved in the oil and gas business. The plaintiffs allege that these defendants purchased oil from Iraq and made payments that violated the United Nations Oil for Food Program. The Program required anyone buying oil from Iraq to place the purchase money into an escrow account monitored by the United Nations. Funds from this account could only be used for humanitarian purposes. The plaintiffs allege that the defendants were involved in buying Iraqi oil with payments that included illegal kickbacks to a secret bank account in Jordan controlled by Saddam Hussein. The plaintiffs allege that Hussein used funds from this account to provide money and services to Palestinian terrorist organizations and to make payments to the families of suicide bombers and others killed in carrying out the terrorist attacks. According to the plaintiffs, such payments were important in recruiting terrorists.

Page 2

The original complaint included 193 plaintiffs, all of whom alleged violations of the Torture Victims Protection Act ("TVPA").1 Most of these plaintiffs were aliens who also asserted claims arising under the Alien Tort Statute ("ATS"),2 which permits aliens to sue for some violations of customary international law. Those plaintiffs who were United States nationals and their estates, survivors, and heirs alleged that the defendants violated what is commonly referred to as the Antiterrorism Act ("ATA")3 by providing material support to terrorist organizations and by engaging in illegal financial transactions with Iraq. (Docket Entry No. 3). On March 31, 2010, this court granted motions to dismiss filed by all the defendants. The claims other than the ATA claim were dismissed both for lack of Article III standing and for failure to state a claim. The ATA claim was dismissed only for failure to state a claim. This court gave the plaintiffs leave to amend the ATA claim but not the other claims.

On April 23, 2010, the plaintiffs filed an amended ATA complaint. The remaining plaintiffs are eight United States nationals or citizens and twelve of their relatives. (Docket Entry No. 121). The plaintiffs alleged that the defendants violated the ATA by providing material support to terrorist organizations and by engaging in financial transactions with Iraq during Hussein's rule. The plaintiffs also alleged that El Paso Corporation and Nucoastal Corporation are liable for the actions of El Paso's predecessor, Coastal Corporation, and its president, Oscar Wyatt, on the basis of successor liability. This claim appeared in the original complaint. The plaintiffs have added a claim that El Paso is liable for Wyatt's actions under respondeat superior.

Page 3

The defendants have all filed motions to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6). The defendants argue that the plaintiffs have not sufficiently alleged knowledge of Hussein's use of OFP kickbacks to fund terrorism targeting Americans or a causal connection between the defendants and the terrorist attacks. The defendants also argue that the plaintiffs' ATA claim is barred by limitations. El Paso contends that the plaintiffs have served the wrong El Paso corporate entity and also seeks dismissal on that basis. (Docket Entry Nos. 127, 128, 130, 133, 134). The plaintiffs have responded to each motion, (Docket Entry Nos. 141, 142, 143), and the defendants have replied. (Docket Entry Nos. 145, 146, 147, 148).

Based on the motions and responses, the allegations in the amended complaint, and the applicable law, the motions to dismiss the amended complaint are denied except as to: (1) the conspiracy allegations; (2) the allegations against Bayoil Supply & Trading and NuCoastal Panama based on violations of 18 U.S.C. § 2332(d); and (3) limitations. The motions to dismiss based on limitations are converted to motions for summary judgment. A status conference is set for April 18, 2011 at 4:00 PM in Courtroom 11-B to discuss a time line for additional discovery and briefing. The basis for this court's opinion is set out in detail below.

I. The Allegations in the Amended Complaint

A. The Iraq Oil for Food Program

Less than a week after Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait on August 6, 1990, the United Nations issued economic sanctions precluding member states from buying Iraqi oil. (Docket Entry No. 121, ¶ 145). On April 14, 1995, the U.N. Security Council adopted Resolution 986, lifting the embargo but restricting Iraq's ability to sell its oil. Iraq's government and the U.N. negotiated the details of the restrictions, resulting in a written agreement some time in May 1996. This agreement

Page 4

led to the U.N. Oil For Food Program ("OFP"). Under the OFP, a new U.N. office was created to oversee Iraq's sale of oil and purchase of humanitarian goods. An escrow account was established at the New York branch of the Banque Nationale de Paris ("BNP"). The proceeds of Iraqi oil sales were to be deposited into the escrow account, which the U.N. monitored. Iraq could use the funds only to purchase food and other humanitarian goods for the country. (Id., ¶¶ 153-55). The United States government allowed American individuals and companies to enter into executory contracts with Iraq to purchase oil or sell humanitarian goods, including food and medical supplies. Before they could perform these contracts, the American entities were required to obtain a license from the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control ("OFAC"). OFAC evaluated these license applications in conjunction with the State and Commerce Departments and the U.N. committee responsible for overseeing the BNP account. The plaintiffs allege that "OFAC issued approximately 1,050 specific licenses to U.S. persons, including defendants for various aspects of the Oil for Food Program." (Id., ¶¶ 156-60).

In December 1996, Iraq began selling oil through the OFP. Under the OFP, although buyers would send the purchase money to the BNP account in New York, Saddam Hussein's government retained the right to choose the buyers. Those selected had to purchase the oil at the Official Selling Price ("OSP"), which was determined by a U.N. committee made up of representatives of the Security Council member states. The plaintiffs allege that the U.N. "sought to set a price for Iraqi oil at the highest rate bearable by the market in order to maximize the revenue generated," which "would increase the amount of humanitarian goods that could be purchased" and "minimize the potential for illegal kickbacks" to Saddam Hussein. Presumably, buyers already paying full market price would be unable or unwilling to pay more in kickbacks. (Id., ¶¶ 161-62).

Page 5

The plaintiffs allege that many of the companies and individuals Iraq chose to receive "allocations" of Iraqi oil "were not otherwise involved in the oil industry [and] were able to reap large profits by selling their allocations of Iraqi oil to brokers and/or companies capable of transporting the oil to a refinery." (Id., ¶ 162). Beginning in 2000, the plaintiffs allege, Iraqi officials conditioned oil allocations on the buyer's willingness to pay a "surcharge" to Hussein's government. These surcharges, calculated as a percentage of the total contract price, were not permitted under OFP. The buyers allegedly paid these surcharges through "front companies" to bank accounts Hussein controlled. The plaintiffs also allege that Hussein charged "port fees" before allowing tankers to receive oil at Iraqi ports. Like the surcharges, the port fees were paid to Hussein instead of the OFP bank account. The plaintiffs allege that these surcharges and port fees were kickbacks made possible by lobbying efforts persuading the U.N. to select a below-market OSP. The plaintiffs also allege that at least some of the cost of these kickbacks was passed on by the direct purchasers to the next purchaser down the line. (Id., ¶¶ 163-68).

B. The Defendants' Actions

Oscar Wyatt, a Texas oil trader, was the chairman and sole shareholder of Coastal Corporation. Wyatt later formed NuCoastal Corporation, a Houston energy company, and NuCoastal Trading, S.A., a Panama corporation. Both Nucoastal entities are also defendants. The plaintiffs allege that on the day Iraq invaded Kuwait, Wyatt owed Iraq $90 million. After the U.N. sanctions froze Iraq's bank accounts, Wyatt began repaying the money directly to the Hussein government and not to the U.N.-controlled accounts. (Id., ¶¶ 139-43). Wyatt maintained a close relationship with Hussein while the U.N. embargo was in place, hoping that he would be rewarded with Iraqi oil-purchase contracts once the sanctions were lifted. This relationship extended to

Page 6

providing Hussein communications equipment and GPS devices in the mid-1990s, including an INMAR satellite, which Wyatt allegedly gave to the ministry of oil and paid to operate.4 (Id., ¶ 143).

The plaintiffs allege that Wyatt was involved in lobbying the U.N. to lift its sanctions and make Iraqi oil available for purchase. The plaintiffs allege that Wyatt also lobbied the U.N. to reduce the OSP to below-market level, enabling Iraq to extract surcharges from Wyatt and other direct buyers while allowing those buyers to make a profit. (Id., ¶¶ 148-52, 210). The plaintiffs allege that Wyatt obtained allocations under the OFP and paid under-the-table surcharges— kickbacks—in exchange for some of those allocations, which involved traveling to Iraq to negotiate with Hussein and others. Wyatt allegedly made the payments through "front companies" he controlled in Switzerland and Cyprus using two associates who are not named as...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT