Trading Places

Nearly seven years ago, says Larry Duncan, "two odious government pistoleros kicked in my door and put this whole thing in motion." But finally the oil industry veteran has been vindicated of charges that he illegally shipped a minirefinery to Libya.

Duncan had been convicted in late 1996 of violating the International Emergency Economic Powers Act. U.S. On July14 District Judge Lynn Hughes threw out that verdict and the charges. In the lengthy legal battle, which was first chronicled by the Houston Press ["Larry in Limbo," by Steve McVicker, March 13, 1997], Duncan challenged the constitutionality of the law.

His lawyers said Hughes agreed with their arguments that the statute undermined the power of Congress because the law wrongly grants the president full authority to decide which countries will be blacklisted from trading with the United States.

Hughes merely cited "the interests of justice" in his ruling. A jury in his court earlier found Duncan not guilty of a third count that accused him of making a false statement to the government.

Public defender Thomas Berg, who represented Duncan, said, "The problem with [the act] is that it gives the executive branch carte blanche to decide what is and isn't a crime" when trading outside of the United States. In an e-mail, Duncan called federal agents "government pistoleros," and he referred to Hughes's ruling. "When I cross the River Styxx [sic] and am stopped by the gatekeeper to be confronted with judgment, will I be able to tell him to hold his water since I have already received FINAL JUDGMENT?"

In 1986, President Ronald Reagan, backed by the international powers act, banned U.S. trade with Libya in retaliation for terrorist acts.

At the time of his alleged transgression in 1992, Duncan worked for Houston-based D&G Oilfield Services. Owner Terry Kirk asked him to take care of Rompetrol, the national oil company of Romania. Rompetrol wanted to start drilling for oil in the north African desert and needed a topping plant — a small refinery — to produce diesel fuel on-site.

Duncan bought a plant and arranged for its journey to Tripoli, Libya, saying the final destination was Algeria.

But some things looked fishy to the U.S. Customs Service. Duncan used his old Mexican firm, Petroserv, to make the purchase. A note was found in his briefcase in July 1992 telling a colleague that it was safer to ship out of Mexico, hence circumventing U.S. Customs. Duncan's route of choice started in Houston and passed through ports of England and Italy.

His bosses, Kirk and British citizen Ian Beckford, were also indicted for violating the trade embargo. Both stayed outside the country as fugitives. In an agreement with the government, their prosecutions were dropped, but the company pleaded guilty, paid $100,000 in fines and forfeited the topping plant.

Their attorney, Joel Androphy, says he received foreign documents from a third party detailing the minirefinery's destination — evidence that shows Duncan was not guilty.

"[Duncan's] shipments were not made to embargoed countries. Unfortunately for Duncan, he didn't have the records [that] I did." Former Duncan lawyer Donald Looper says the embargo law is unnecessarily hampering companies with Libyan ties. "There were 85 [banned companies with Libyan ties] in '91; now there are over 2,000." Looper points out that in every other country it is legal to do business with the blacklisted companies.

Had his verdict not been overturned, Duncan would have faced punishment of up to 51 months in prison. Duncan had to protest to get his passport returned so he could travel to oil-field jobs in South America. He now lives in Venezuela.

He says he was very relieved at first about the judge's ruling but still believes the government was wrong to drag him through a seven-year legal battle that sullied his name and stripped him of his possessions. More than $1million in oil-field equipment was taken from him, he says.

Prosecutors say no decision has been made yet on whether to appeal Hughes's decision — although Duncan wants them to take it to a higher court. The embargo law, he says, is an unconstitutional "abomination."

"I'm an old man, and they've made me older," says Duncan, 61. He detests the embargo law as unconstitutional. "If the president says you have to do this, you don't have to do it [without due process]. It's not a dictatorship."

Androphy and others say the Duncan case also shows the justice department's penchant for prosecuting the little guy, while those with ample financial resources can in effect "buy off the prosecution" with agreements to avoid real punishment.

But this oil-field veteran hardly sounds like a meek little guy. He says the court action still falls short of the full vindication he deserves after the long fight.

"I won't be satisfied," Duncan says, "until the government is lying prostrate in front of me, saying, 'Don't kick me any more.'"

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