Larry in Limbo

Is little guy Larry Duncan being made to suffer for the big guys' sins?

I'm not a very sympathetic character," admits Larry Duncan, a veteran of the oil patch who's rarely looked for sympathy. He certainly received none from a federal jury, which 16 months ago convicted him of violating the U.S. trade embargo against Libya. Since then, Duncan's been relegated to legal purgatory, chain-smoking his way through the months while waiting to receive his sentence from U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes.

Duncan had run afoul of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act, a federal law that grants the president authority to deal with "unusual and extraordinary" foreign threats to national security. In 1986, President Reagan, in retaliation for Libyan-sponsored acts of terrorism, invoked the law to ban U.S. trade with Libya. Duncan now contends that Reagan -- and every other president who's invoked the IEEPA -- wrongfully usurped the power of Congress. That's not exactly a novel argument: Executives of major American oil companies have publicly criticized the unilateral economic sanctions that prevent the companies from doing business with Libya and the other blacklisted countries.

But the 59-year-old Duncan isn't an executive of a large oil company, nor is he a gentleman who enjoys arguing the fine points of constitutional law. He's a beer-swilling former roughneck with a ready command of expletives -- and apparently, a midlevel wheeler-dealer being made to suffer for corporate transgressions.

In 1991, after Duncan's small oil-service company lost its major client, he took a job with D&G Oilfield Services, which was owned by an old friend, Terry Kirk. D&G assigned Duncan to handle the needs of Rompetrol, the national oil company of Romania.

Rompetrol was interested in drilling for oil in the deserts of northern Africa. But there was a problem: A drilling operation's machinery consumes large amounts of diesel fuel, and the cost of transporting diesel to remote areas can be prohibitive. Rompetrol wanted a technical solution: a "topping plant" -- basically, a small, portable refinery -- that could produce the fuel on-site by refining the crude pumped from the ground.

Duncan bought a topping plant from a Houston company, Basic Equipment and Supply -- a perfectly legal transaction. But when he arranged to ship the plant to Rompetrol's North African headquarters in Tripoli, he violated the trade ban.

Duncan contends that the plant was ultimately destined for Algeria, not Libya, but federal prosecutors make a convincing case that Duncan was actively seeking a way around the law. During his trial, they described the plant's convoluted shipping route -- including ports in England and Italy -- as an effort to conceal the plant's eventual destination. They pointed out that Duncan bought the plant not as a representative of D&G, but under the name of his old Mexican venture, Petroserv -- another attempt at camouflage. And most damning of all, they introduced a note found in Duncan's briefcase in July 1992. In the note, Duncan told a business associate that it would be safer to ship the topping plant out of Mexico rather than the U.S., lest it be confiscated by Customs.

The jury was unanimous in voting to convict Duncan, who could receive up to 51 months in prison. Since 1992, the Justice Department has filed charges in 22 cases for violations of the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. (Twelve of those cases, like Duncan's, involve alleged trade with Libya.) Of the individuals accused, 19 have received jail time, one was acquitted and another died before going to trial. In four cases, the defendants received only fines. Still pending are the trials of eight people -- including chess champion Bobby Fischer, accused of participating in a $5 million dollar chess match in violation of the IEEPA.

Duncan was added to that list in 1994, when he and two higher-ranking D&G officials -- owner Kirk, an American citizen, and his associate Ian Beckford, a Brit -- were indicted in the topping plant case. In the two and a half years since, both Kirk and Beckford have remained fugitives outside the U.S. Realizing that the two might never return to stand trial, the Justice Department agreed not to prosecute the two as individuals -- meaning that neither would face jail time. In exchange, the pair agreed to have their company plead guilty and pay a $100,000 fine. Kirk and Beckford also forfeited any claim to the topping plant, which the government had seized. (The arrangement must still receive the approval of Judge Hughes.)

Houston attorney Joel Androphy represents Kirk and Beckford. Although he was happy that his clients will probably avoid jail time, he says that the possible incarceration facing Duncan is reflective of the Justice Department's penchant for sticking it to the little guy.

Certainly, corporations have admitted worse transgressions without anyone's serving time. In July 1995, Dallas-based Halliburton pleaded guilty to charges that officials of Welex, one of its Houston divisions, violated the Libyan trade sanctions three times by exporting pulse neutron generators, radioactive tools used to measure the porosity of potential wells. Though government officials claimed that the generators could have been used to detonate nuclear weapons, no Halliburton officials were charged. Instead, the company simply agreed to plead guilty to exporting products to Libya without a license and paid a $3.8 million fine.

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