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Ex-Venezuela oil official pleads guilty in graft probe

Published:Thursday | November 1, 2018 | 12:00 AM

The former finance chief of Venezuela's state oil company pleaded guilty on Wednesday to participating in an alleged US$1.2-billion embezzlement scheme, a major breakthrough for US prosecutors targeting corruption by people close to President Nicolas Maduro, including his stepsons.

Appearing in a Miami federal court, Abraham Ortega promised to fully cooperate with prosecutors, making him the highest-ranking Venezuelan official ever to do so.

As part of his plea, Ortega admitted that in his position with PDVSA, he accepted US$5 million in bribes to give priority loan status to a French company and a Russian bank, which were both minority shareholders in joint ventures with the oil company.

He also said he accepted US$12 million in bribes for his role in an embezzlement scheme that involved cooking up fake loans to PDVSA and repaying them at a preferential, government-set exchange rate, turning huge profits for alleged co-conspirators among the "boliburgues" elites that amassed fortunes under the Bolivarian Revolution started by the late Hugo Ch·vez.

Ortega's guilty plea came just two days after a former Swiss banker, also involved in the conspiracy, was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

A third man, Colombian national Gustavo Hernandez, has been detained in Italy pending extradition. Ortega said Hernandez helped him launder his cut through a sophisticated network of brokerage firms, banks and real estate investment firms in the United States and elsewhere.

Ortega, 51, arrived at court looking calm, telling Judge Kathleen Williams that he drank a beer at lunch.

"Guilty" he said in Spanish with a strong voice, upon entering his plea to one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering.

He also agreed to forfeit US$12 million held in banks in New Jersey, The Bahamas and Switzerland. Sentencing was scheduled for January 9.

Ortega held a number of senior finance roles at PDVSA between 2004 and 2016, including the last two years as the company's chief financial officer.

His lawyer, Lilly Ann Sanchez, said he had been living outside Venezuela the past year, but decided to come to the United States and voluntarily cooperate with authorities once charges against him and others were announced over the summer.

"The US government has amassed a tremendous amount of evidence and witnesses wherein Mr Ortega really had no choice but to come and face those charges," Sanchez said.

Two US officials familiar with the probe have said the Swiss banker sentenced earlier this week, Matthias Krull, told prosecutors that the money-laundering plot included Maduro's three stepsons - identified in court papers as "The Kids" - and the owner of Venezuela's largest private TV network, businessman Raul Gorrin.

The two officials agreed to give those details only if granted anonymity, because they were not authorised to discuss the case publicly.

None of them have been charged and they are not named in the complaint. A 10-page factual statement, entered as part of the plea, also refers to the same men but does not provide additional details about their alleged involvement in the conspiracy.

The US Justice Department said authorities in Italy, Spain, Britain and Malta assisted in the investigation.

- AP