(Updates with Petroecuador statement removing Gunvor from provider list in paragraphs 9-10)
NEW YORK, April 6 (Reuters) - A Canadian man once employed by the commodities trading house Gunvor Group pleaded guilty on Tuesday to involvement in what U.S. prosecutors called a scheme to bribe Ecuadorean government officials to win business from state-controlled oil company Petroecuador.
Raymond Kohut, 68, entered his plea to a money laundering conspiracy charge before U.S. District Judge Eric Vitaliano in Brooklyn, New York. He faces up to a 20 years in prison and agreed to a $2.2 million criminal forfeiture.
U.S. and Brazilian authorities have for many years been investigating some of the world’s largest commodity trading firms over allegations of fraud and bribery.
Merchant trading firms paid bribes to officials in several Latin American countries, including Mexico and Brazil, to win lucrative contracts with state-run commodities companies.
Mark Bini, a prosecutor with the U.S. Department of Justice, said Kohut was part of a conspiracy with fellow employees, consultants and Ecuadorian officials that led to payments of $22 million in bribes to the officials, with proceeds concealed through bank accounts opened in the names of shell companies.
Kohut had worked in the Bahamas as an employee and contractor for Gunvor, which is based in Geneva and has several other trading offices worldwide. He told the judge that the bribes related to purchases of oil products.
“I know what I was doing was wrong and illegal,” he said.
Lawyers for Kohut did not respond to requests for comment.
Petroecuador said in a statement that it has suspended Gunvor from its list of providers and was seeking assistance from Ecuadorean prosecutors to obtain more details about the case.
“The objective is to have more information about the investigation that is being carried out by the U.S. Department of Justice into an ex employee of Gunvor Group Ltd for having facilitated bribes to officials of the Ecuadorean oil company,” the statement said.
Gunvor was not charged. It said it has been cooperating with the Justice Department probe, and taken steps to ban the use of what it called “agents” for business development purposes.
The Justice Department has long probed suspected corruption involving Petroecuador.
It has prosecuted former Petroecuador officials who received bribes, businessmen and contractors who paid bribes, and intermediaries who used U.S. and offshore companies and bank accounts to facilitate bribes. (Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York and Chris Prentice in Washington, D.C.; Editing by Marguerita Choy and Christian Schmollinger)