Fri | Dec 8, 2023

Top Venezuela oil official pleads guilty to taking bribes

Published:Friday | March 31, 2023 | 12:50 AM
A sculpture of a hand holding an oil well stands by the state-run oil company PDVSA (Petroleos de Venezuela SA) in Caracas, Venezuela.
AP A sculpture of a hand holding an oil well stands by the state-run oil company PDVSA (Petroleos de Venezuela SA) in Caracas, Venezuela.

The former general counsel for Venezuela’s state-owned oil company pleaded guilty in Miami federal court on money-laundering charges on Wednesday in connection to a conspiracy to siphon hundreds of millions from state coffers through corrupt currency deals.

As part of his plea agreement, Alvaro Ledo Nass acknowledged taking US$11.5 million in bribes while serving in several senior roles at Petroleos de Venezuela SA, or PDVSA, until 2015.

“I knew what I did,” Nass said in proceedings before Judge Patricia Seitz, expressing remorse for his actions. “I came here to own up to my mistakes and to take responsibility before the US courts.”

Nass, 43, in February became the latest among several dozen former Venezuelan officials to be charged or convicted in the United States as part of Operation Money Flight, a sprawling, multi-year investigation that seeks to untangle how Venezuelan insiders stole billions in oil wealth from their country.

Many of the individuals involved in the massive graft scheme either relocated or ploughed their stolen wealth into real estate in south Florida.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro this month ordered a crackdown on corruption inside PDVSA that has led to a number of arrests of top officials and businessmen accused of stealing oil shipments. The allegations prompted the resignation of the country’s oil czar, Tareck El Aissami, a key figure in the government’s efforts to evade US oil sanctions.

Nass’ crimes predate the latest purge but are nonetheless symptomatic of the same graft that, experts say, has proliferated through Venezuela’s state-run oil industry during more than two decades of socialist rule.

As part of his plea deal, Nass admitted to taking bribes in exchange for greenlighting a bogus currency transaction in 2014, by which several businessmen agreed to loan bolivars to PDVSA at the widely used black-market exchange rate in Venezuela. The oil company then repaid the loan less than a few months later at an artificially high official exchange rate, allowing the insiders to turn a massive profit.

Assistant US Attorney Kurt Lunkenheimer and Justice Department trial attorney Paul Hayden are overseeing the case, which started when Nass, who had been living in Spain, came to the United States to cooperate with the law-enforcement investigation.

Nass, as secretary of PDVSA’s board of directors and then general counsel, was able to influence decisions inside the oil giant.

In reaction to the case, Nass’ parents said they were devastated.

“We trust he will get through this sad period and overcome the mistakes that have so affected him and our family,” his parents said in a statement through Caracas-based attorney Jesus Loreto.