(Corrects name of judge in paragraph 5 to Thomas Ambro, not Leonard Stark)
By Luc Cohen
CARACAS, July 31 (Reuters) - Canadian gold mining company Crystallex would need to request an exemption to U.S. sanctions on Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA before seizing shares in its U.S. subsidiary, Citgo, an adviser to Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaido said on Wednesday.
On Monday, a U.S. court ruled that Crystallex International Corp could attach Citgo shares to collect on a $1.4 billion arbitration award as compensation for Venezuela’s expropriation of its mining assets in the country.
But the United States slapped sanctions on PDVSA in January as part of its bid to choke off government revenue and pressure socialist President Nicolas Maduro to step down, which the adviser, Alejandro Grisanti, said would complicate any effort to seize Citgo shares.
The ruling “clearly establishes that Crystallex will need a license to be able to execute the asset,” Grisanti, also a member of a parallel ad-hoc board of directors Guaido appointed to PDVSA, said in a telephone interview.
In the ruling, U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit Judge Thomas Ambro wrote that any effort to attach PDVSA’s shares in Citgo’s parent company “would likely need to be authorized by the Treasury Department.”
Guaido in January invoked Venezuela’s constitution to assume an interim presidency, arguing Maduro is usurping the presidency based on a fraudulent 2018 election. He has been recognized as Venezuela’s rightful leader by dozens of countries, including the United States.
Maduro calls Guaido a U.S. puppet seeking to oust him in a coup.
“It is a huge international operation to steal resources from Venezuela,” Executive Vice President Delcy Rodriguez said in a state television broadcast on Wednesday about the court decision.
She argued that ever since the United States decided to no longer recognize Maduro as Venezuela’s president, the country “cannot take action or have representation in the United States.”
Crystallex declined to comment. Monday’s court ruling cited a Crystallex statement saying it “will seek clarification” on the license. The Treasury Department did not respond to a request for comment.
Crystallex is not the only threat to Venezuela’s ownership of Citgo. PDVSA pledged half of Citgo’s shares as collateral for its 2020 bond, and failure to make a $913 million payment due in October could allow bondholders to attempt to seize Citgo.
The other half of Citgo’s shares was pledged as collateral for a $1.5 billion loan granted by Russia’s Rosneft.
Grisanti said his representatives in the United States had requested the Trump administration issue an executive order protecting Citgo from seizure. No such order has been granted.
“We want the American government to understand that the worst that can happen for the end of the usurpation is to not protect Venezuela’s assets,” he said.
Later on Wednesday, Venezuelan Chief Prosecutor Tarek William Saab said his office was opening a criminal investigation into Jose Ignacio Hernandez, a Venezuelan lawyer living in the United States whom Guaido has designated as his overseas legal representative.
Court records show that Hernandez in 2017 provided Crystallex’s lawyers with expert testimony on the relationship between PDVSA and Venezuela’s government. In a statement, Saab’s office said this amounted to “a conflict of interest that violates all judicial ethics” and “treason toward his fellow citizens.” In a statement, Guaido’s office said Hernandez had recused himself from the case in March. When asked for comment by Reuters, Hernandez said Saab had “no authority.”
“He was appointed by the fraudulent constituent assembly,” Hernandez said, referring to a pro-government legislature created in 2017 that the opposition considers illegitimate. “Therefore, he cannot open a criminal investigation.”
Additional reporting by Deisy Buitrago and Shaylim Valderrama in Caracas; editing by Marianna Parraga, Susan Thomas and Cynthia Osterman