Tue | Nov 20, 2018

Ex-Venezuelan energy official pleads guilty in graft case

Published:Wednesday | July 18, 2018 | 12:09 AM

A former official at a state-run electric company in Caracas, Venezuela, pleaded guilty on Monday to money laundering conspiracy relating to an alleged multibillion-dollar graft scheme in the Venezuelan oil industry.

Luis Carlos de Leon-Perez, a 42-year-old dual citizen of the United States and Venezuela, admitted his role in the scheme to bribe officials of Venezuela's state-owned-and-controlled oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, or PDVSA, the US Attorney's Office in Houston announced. He also pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate the US Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. He is scheduled to be sentenced on September 24.

De Leon admitted seeking bribes from owners of energy companies in the United States and elsewhere and directing some of the bribes to PDVSA officials.

In 2016, Venezuela's opposition-led National Assembly said US$11 billion went missing at PDVSA in 2004-2014, when Rafael Ramirez was in charge of the company. In 2015, the US Treasury Department accused a bank in Andorra of laundering some US$2 billion stolen from PDVSA.

Ramirez was one of Venezuela's most powerful officials until he resigned as Venezuela's ambassador to the United Nations in December. He was not charged in the indictment and has denied any wrongdoing, dismissing the US probe into PDVSA as a politically motivated attempt to undermine President Nicolas Maduro's government.

De Leon was arrested in Spain last October and extradited to the United States after a federal grand jury in Houston returned a 20-count indictment against him, Nervis Gerardo Villalobos Cardenas, 51; Cesar David Rincon Godoy, 51: Alejandro Isturiz Chiesa, 33; and Rafael Ernesto Reiter Munoz, 39.

Cesar Rincon has already pleaded guilty to money laundering conspiracy. Roberto Enrique Rincon Fernandez, 57, of The Woodlands, Texas; and Abraham Jose Shiera Bastidas, 55, of Coral Gables, Florida, have pleaded guilty to violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and await sentencing. Prosecutors say they paid bribes in exchange for contracts to build electricity generators for PDVSA at a time Venezuela was suffering widespread power outages.

In all, 12 suspects have entered guilty pleas relating to the investigation, the Justice Department said.

Villalobos, Ramirez's former deputy at PDVSA; Reiter, PDVSA's former corporate security chief, and Isturiz all await trial on charges of money laundering and money laundering conspiracy.

Villalobos is also charged with conspiring to violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. He and Reiter remain in Spain awaiting extradition, while Isturiz still has not been arrested.

AP