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    Former top lawyer of Venezuela’s oil company pleads guilty in $1.2B money laundering case

    March 31, 2023 - Jay Weaver, Miami Herald


      A former general counsel of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company has pleaded guilty to a money laundering scheme stretching from his homeland to South Florida to Europe that enabled him to pocket $11.5 million in bribes from an alleged government racket.

      Alvaro Ledo Nass, a lawyer who also served as secretary of PDVSA’s board of directors, faces up to 10 years in prison at his sentencing in early June in Miami federal court after admitting Wednesday that he played a key role in the $1.2 billion money laundering conspiracy.

      But according to his plea agreement, Nass is not likely to receive the maximum punishment because of his extensive assistance to federal prosecutors in the corruption case dating to 2018. He must also turn over millions of dollars in assets from bank accounts in Switzerland, Portugal and Malta to the U.S. government.

      “He has cooperated and done what is expected of him,” Nass’ defense attorney, Oscar Rodriguez, said Thursday.

      So far, a dozen foreign and local defendants have been charged in the sprawling foreign corruption case, and five have pleaded guilty in Miami federal court.

      Nass came to Miami last year, surrendered to authorities in February and was released on a $1 million bond. He’s the latest senior Venezuelan official at PDVSA to admit giving access to a ring of political insiders accused of providing massive loans to the national oil company in exchange for inflated payments washed through the government’s lucrative currency exchanges.

      A factual statement, signed by Nass, his lawyers and prosecutors, says that between 2012 and 2017 the defendant and others “engaged in various foreign exchange schemes using loan contracts with PDVSA that were unlawfully obtained via bribes and kickbacks.”

      The case’s main money-laundering scheme unfolded in late 2014 with a sham loan to PDVSA that was repaid through the government’s bolivar-dollar exchange system, siphoning $600 million from the state-owned oil company’s coffers, according to an indictment and other court documents. That money was moved offshore to bank accounts in Switzerland and Malta, though the network of co-conspirators used an associate based in Miami to launder a portion of the PDVSA funds in the United States, according to federal prosecutors Kurt Lunkenheimer and Paul Hayden.

      By 2015, the conspiracy had doubled to $1.2 billion embezzled from Venezuela’s national oil company, the indictment says. Meanwhile, the associate became a key cooperating source for Homeland Security Investigations, including recording conversations in undercover meetings with some of the co-conspirators.

      The HSI informant has not been charged in the Miami case. The accused ringleader is Venezuelan Francisco Convit Guruceaga, who allegedly collaborated with other influential business people to exploit the oil-rich administrations of the late President Hugo Chávez and current President Nicolás Maduro.

      Convit’s defense attorney, Adam Kaufmann in New York, has declined to comment while his client remains in Venezuela.

      Since 2018, federal prosecutors and Homeland Security Investigations have frozen hundreds of millions of dollars in bank and real estate assets belonging to the dozen defendants named in the main money-laundering indictment and related cases.

      The first to plead guilty was Venezuelan banker Matthias Krull, who was enlisted to transfer some of the PDVSA money secreted away in European bank accounts to the United States. Krull paid $600,000 to satisfy a forfeiture judgment and served only one year and three months in prison because of his substantial assistance in the government’s case.

      In 2021, Abraham Edgardo Ortega, a former executive director of financial planning at PDVSA, was sentenced to two years and four months after he admitted accepting more than $12 million in bribes that were secretly wired to U.S. and other financial institutions. Ortega also cooperated with prosecutors. Ortega, who served as PDVSA’s top financial officer from 2014 to 2016, admitted that he conspired with the alleged leader of the money-laundering ring, Convit.

      Ortega also said he collaborated with a Miami-based investment broker, Gustavo Adolfo Hernandez Frieri. Hernandez pleaded guilty to accepting $12 million from Ortega to invest in fake mutual funds in the United States so that the transactions looked legitimate, prosecutors said. Hernandez was sentenced to nearly four years.

      Last year, a top lawyer of Venezuela’s oil ministry who also played a central role in the $1.2 billion money-laundering scheme was sentenced to more than four years in prison. Carmelo Urdaneta Aqui, the former legal counsel for Venezuela’s Ministry of Oil and Mining, was convicted in 2021 of accepting tens of millions of dollars in bribes and investing some of his illicit payments in a Sunny Isles Beach high-rise condo and other real estate in the Miami area.

      ©2023 Miami Herald. Visit Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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