EPA:

WikiLeaks sheds light on legal standstill over 'well regarded' fugitive

Finding Frerik Pluimers, one of the 17 members of U.S. EPA's list of wanted environmental fugitives, isn't the problem. The well-connected, 64-year-old Dutch businessman is living in the open in the Netherlands.

But bringing Pluimers to trial has been a 13-year-long legal and diplomatic drama that has involved at least two Dutch ministers of Justice, one foreign minister, the U.S. State Department, former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez and even the Dutch Supreme Court.

Today, the Pluimers case is at a standstill, with the last court filing now more than three years old. This week, the Department of Justice and the Dutch government each blamed the other for why extradition proceedings are essentially dead.

But new insight into the international tug of war over Pluimers can be found in a diplomatic cable released earlier this year by the anti-secrecy website Wikileaks. That cable, written in 2006 by officials at the U.S. embassy in The Hague, indicates that Pluimers simply has too much influence with high-ranking Dutch officials to be handed over to U.S. authorities.

In a briefing memo compiled for Gonzalez days ahead of his October 2006 visit to the Netherlands, U.S. embassy officials provided the attorney general with updates on a variety of law enforcement and legal issues that were of interest to Dutch/U.S. relations.

In paragraph 19 of that memo, after a discussion of an upcoming cyber-crime conference, embassy officials discussed ongoing extradition proceedings surrounding two men who were wanted in the United States.

The second man, a "well-known Dutch business executive whom we have indicted on corruption charges," was Pluimers.

The cable notes that Pluimers is wanted in his capacity as director of a U.S. subsidiary of the former Saybolt International, an oil and chemical inspection and testing company that had been based in Rotterdam, Netherlands.

The United States filed an extradition request for Pluimers in 2001, but Justice Minister Piet Hein Donner, who now serves as Interior minister, refused to take any action on the request, even after a 2003 ruling by the Dutch Supreme Court that was expected to help clear the way for Pluimers to be sent to the United States.

"Pluimers is very well regarded in Dutch business and political circles," the cable states. "Donner deferred action on his extradition in light of opposition from fellow Cabinet ministers."

The cable goes on to note that in late 2005 then-Dutch Foreign Minister Ben Bot, who had previously spent a decade representing the Netherlands to the European Union, wrote former Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick to request that the United States drop its extradition request for Pluimers.

"Following interagency consultation, Zoellick responded that we would not drop the request," the cable states.

The section ends by simply noting that "there has been no further action on the case."

When asked about the contents of that 2006 cable this week, Floris Van Hovell, a spokesman for the Dutch Embassy in Washington, D.C., said he could not comment on the Wikileaks document.

"Even the American authorities are not confirming any of those documents to be true original cables," Van Hovell said.

Complicated path to EPA fugitive status

While the legal wrangling over Pluimers' extradition has become a muddled affair over the past 13 years, the reason he ended up on EPA's fugitive list in the first place is also a complicated story.

According to case filings in a New Jersey U.S. District Court, Pluimers is facing charges of bribery, conspiracy to defraud and violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act -- none of which is the usual bailiwick of EPA.

"The formal charges against Pluimers are conspiracy and bribery; however, the original case against him involved environmental offenses, which is why EPA is involved," said Jeff McAtee, a spokesman for EPA's Office of Criminal Enforcement, Forensics and Training, which runs EPA's fugitive list.

In 1996, EPA was investigating Saybolt's North American operation on suspicion that it had been falsifying oxygen and other test results on reformulated gasoline to allow customers to sell imported gasoline that did not meet government standards.

Saybolt, which was acquired by Texas-based Core Laboratories in 1997, was eventually fined $3.4 million in 1999 in U.S. District Court for violations of the Clean Air Act.

But during EPA's investigation of Saybolt, which included a raid on its New Jersey-based headquarters, it was also discovered that company officials had bribed a Panamanian government official in 1995 with $50,000 in an attempt to get tax benefits and a prime business location for a Saybolt facility along the Panama Canal.

Pluimers, who served as chairman of the board for Saybolt, and David Mead, who served as CEO of the company's Western Hemisphere operations, were eventually indicted on similar charges relating to the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

Mead was brought to trial and in March 1999 he was sentenced to four months in prison and $20,000 in fines. Saybolt incurred an additional $1.5 million in fines as a result of the bribery scheme.

Pluimers did not to come back to the United States from Rotterdam to face the charges, and a warrant for his arrest was issued in September 1999.

'It's old history ... end of story'

It seems that the closest the Department of Justice has come to bringing Pluimers to justice came in 2003, when the Dutch Supreme Court took up the United States' 2001 extradition request.

While the Supreme Court ruled the United States had sufficient grounds to make its request, Van Hovell said this week that Justice Minister Donner first hesitated with moving ahead with the extradition because there was some indication that Pluimers was trying to negotiate with U.S. authorities to make a deal on his own.

When those negotiations fell through, Van Hovell said, Donner took the position that Pluimers could be extradited under several conditions including the important provision that if he is sentenced, he would be allowed to serve that sentence in the Netherlands.

"Apparently the American authorities could not agree to that condition," Van Hovell said. "The U.S. authorities could not guarantee that he would be able to serve his sentence in the Netherlands."

But U.S. officials tell a different story.

According to Department of Justice spokesman Wyn Hornbuckle, the United States did agree to Pluimers' repatriation to serve out his sentence.

"The United States has for many years provided such assurances in cases in which we have sought the extradition of Dutch nationals, and they have been accepted by the Dutch government," Hornbuckle said.

And yet, in this case, the Dutch government refused to extradite Pluimers, he said.

Van Hovell acknowledged that in 2008 the Dutch Justice Minister Hirsch Ballin made the decision not to extradite Pluimers, and it appears that he is not going to face trial in the Netherlands over the charges.

"Our public prosecutor will not pursue anything against him because at the time the alleged crime took place it was not a punishable offense in the Netherlands," Van Hovell said.

The only other recent action in the matter came on March 24, 2008, when D.C.-based attorney Wick Sollers appeared in the New Jersey district court on behalf of Pluimers to say that his client would appear four days later to enter a guilty plea in the case.

But Pluimers never showed up and no guilty plea was ever entered.

These days, Pluimers is believed to still be active in business, but attempts to reach him through Sollers this week were unsuccessful.

Reached at his law office in The Hague yesterday, Mischa Wladimiroff, who handled Pluimers' case before Sollers, said the United States has been beating a dead horse in pursuing its extradition.

"From my perspective the case has already been archived," Wladimiroff said. "It's old history, it has been dealt with, end of story."

Wladimiroff said he knew that Pluimers had been included on EPA's fugitives list but dismissed the move as an attempt by the U.S. government to satisfy its own ego.

"It may be an issue for the U.S. officials. Those people who believe if you write up a list and keep on writing it then justice is done," Wladimiroff said. "You keep people on lists and, well, it's more or less a symbol. We're not concerned with those kind of things here in Europe."