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In Landmark Criminal Case, Citgo Could Get Off Easy


A version of this story ran in the March 2013 issue.

When a jury convicted Citgo of environmental crimes in 2007, it was a triumphant moment for the long-suffering folks in neighborhoods near the company’s Corpus Christi refinery. For a decade, residents of Hillcrest, a low-income black and Hispanic community in Corpus, had been exposed to benzene and other toxic substances wafting from giant tanks of oil that Citgo illegally operated and hid from state inspectors. Suffering from headaches, dizziness, scratchy throats and nausea, they’d filed hundreds of complaints with the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. A criminal conviction, they felt, was finally some measure of justice.

It was also a landmark legal case: the first time a jury had found a corporation guilty of criminal violations of the Clean Air Act.

Yet more than five years later, Citgo has yet to be sentenced. Prosecutors and attorneys for the victims say the delay is extremely unusual. “Justice delayed is justice denied,” said Bill Miller, a special prosecutor who worked on the Citgo case and is now retired.

And some recent developments are alarming. The judge is considering a fine that victims consider a pitiful recompense for health problems they link to the refinery. Prosecutors and a group of 600 victims want the judge to consider the financial gain Citgo enjoyed from its crimes. The government has calculated that Citgo pulled in $1 billion over the decade it operated its refinery illegally. If U.S. District Court Judge John D. Rainey were to empanel a jury to consider such “pecuniary gain,” Citgo could theoretically pay up to $2 billion in penalties. Rainey has so far declined to establish a jury, ruling that it would prolong the sentencing process. (An irony that isn’t lost on some. “That’s too funny,” said Suzie Canales, an environmental justice activist in Corpus. “People have died waiting for the judge.”) Without a sentencing jury, the judge can levy a maximum fine of only $2 million—a paltry sum compared to the billion the company earned during its criminal activity.

Miller said letting the company off easy could have far-reaching consequences.

“You might as well just throw the whole Clean Air Act out of the window,” he said. “Your refineries, your chemical plants, your power plants, all of them would not be subject to sufficiently high criminal penalties” to defer future egregious pollution. The Citgo case is so rare because most companies, cognizant of steep criminal penalties, agree to make changes long before a jury is empanelled or criminal charges are filed, he said. Prosecuting a company criminally is the nuclear option of environmental regulation. But without the fear of enormous fines, a polluter could see violations simply as the cost of doing business. After all, even if the U.S. Supreme Court thinks corporations are people, you can’t shuffle a company off in leg irons to do 25 to life.