MIAMI (AP) – Three American defense contractors held for five years by leftist rebels in Colombia moved closer to collecting on a $318 million judgment against their former captors after a U.S. Supreme Court justice rebuffed a last-minute appeal by a sanctioned Venezuelan businessman whose assets they seek to claim.
Justice Clarence Thomas refused to hear an emergency appeal by Samark LÃ³pez, letting stand an order by a federal appeals court immediately turning over $53 million from the businessman’s previously seized U.S. bank accounts while the lower court judgment is being contested.
The decision came to light Thursday in a report by Russ Dallen, the head of Caracas Capital Markets, which closely monitors litigation involving Venezuela. Attorneys for LÃ³pez are now pinning their hopes on an emergency appeal filed Tuesday to Justice Sonia Sotomayor in accordance with Supreme Court rules.
Keith Stansell, Marc Gonsalves and Thomas Howes were taken captive by guerrillas from the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, when their airplane was shot down during a drug-monitoring flight in 2003. Their pilot, Tom Janis, was killed by the rebels after the plane crashed.
All three were employees of Northrop Grumman. They were freed 12 years ago Thursday along with former Colombian presidential candidate Ingrid Betancourt in a daring rescue by Colombiaâ€™s army.
In 2012, a federal judge in Florida awarded the men $318 million to be paid from bank accounts seized from drug traffickers linked to the FARC, a designated terrorist group.
But they had mostly been unable to collect until President Donald J. Trump quietly signed into law in 2018 the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act, which enabled victims of terror groups to attach assets seized by the U.S. government under the drug kingpin act.
The new law allowed the men to go after LÃ³pezâ€™s blocked assets in the U.S., which include a $269 million Citibank account, two yachts, an aircraft and luxury real estate in Miami.
LÃ³pez is a powerful businessman in Venezuela whose fortune soared thanks to government contracts in the past two decades of socialist rule. He was sanctioned by the U.S. in 2017 as a â€œdrug kingpinâ€ alongside Venezuela’s then vice president and now oil minister, Tareck El Aissami, for allegedly laundering proceeds from international narcotics trafficking.
But LÃ³pez’s links to the FARC are tenuous at best, according to his defenders, including Dick Gregorie, a former Miami prosecutor with a long history of putting narcos behind bars. During last year’s trial on the men’s bid for his assets, experts for the plaintiffs including a former Drug Enforcement Administration agent claimed LÃ³pez had only indirect ties to the guerrillas through his friendship with El Aissami, who U.S. officials have long believed assisted the FARC in moving cocaine through Venezuela.
The FARC wasnâ€™t mentioned by name when LÃ³pez and El Aissami were sanctioned in 2017 and the only known criminal charges against the two men is for chartering private flights in the U.S. in violation of sanctions, not drug trafficking.
Dallen said that if the three men succeed in their court quest it could allow FARC victims to move ahead of Venezuela’s creditors and opponents of President NicolÃ¡s Maduro seeking to recover assets allegedly stolen through corruption.
Joshua Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman