A top official at Russian natural gas producer Novatek who was arrested in the United States last week on tax charges says he is innocent and will "vigorously" fight the case.
"On Thursday I was indicted for baseless tax charges that I already settled through a voluntary program, and pleaded not guilty. I will vigorously fight these charges and will continue to discuss gas topics as normal," Mark Gyetvay, the deputy chairman of Novatek’s management board, said in a tweet on September 26.
The U.S. Department of Justice announced on September 23 that Gyetvay had been arrested on tax charges related to $93 million hidden in offshore accounts. He faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted.
Gyetvay, who holds passports from both the United States and Russia, was released on a $80 million bond by a Florida judge, according to court filings.
As an American citizen, Gyetvay is required to pay U.S. taxes on his worldwide income even if he spends most of the year in Russia.
The 64-year old has been the face of Novatek to the Western investment community for more than a decade, conducting the quarterly earnings conference calls with stock and bond investors as well as speaking at industry conferences.
Novatek is Russia’s largest independent natural gas producer and analysts say its phenomenal rise from a bit player in the early 2000s to a $79 billion company today -- not far behind BP’s $89 billion market value -- is due in large part to the company’s connections to the Kremlin.
Gennady Timchenko, a key Novatek shareholder, is considered a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Their friendship goes back to the early 1990s.
Gyetvay has been critical of U.S. energy policy toward Russia.
The United States has been seeking to reduce Europe’s reliance on Russian energy over the years, including blocking the launch of Nord Stream 2, a pipeline designed to carry natural gas directly to Germany via Baltic Sea.
The Nord Stream 2 pipeline will reroute gas currently transiting Ukraine, depriving Kyiv of as much as $2 billion in revenue. The United States has called it a political project aimed at hurting Russia’s smaller neighbor.
The project was completed earlier this month and is now awaiting certification by German and European authorities, a process that could take several months.
In the meantime, European gas prices have surged to a record high amid a supply crunch. Washington is now accusing Russia of withholding additional natural gas supplies to Europe via Ukraine in order to pressure authorities to certify Nord Stream 2.
"Another laugher!!!" Gyetvay said in a tweet two days before his arrest after a U.S. official expressed concern that Russia was not sending enough gas to Europe. "Who tried to impose relentless sanctions while promoting [U.S. liquefied natural gas to Europe?] Reality -- we need ALL gas. Period."