Former Venezuelan official surrenders to feds in $1.2 billion money-laundering case

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President of Venezuela Nicolas Maduro speaks during a news conference at Miraflores Government Palace on March 12, 2020, in Caracas, Venezuela. - Carolina Cabral/Getty Images North America/TNS

MIAMI — After two years under U.S. indictment, a former top lawyer in Venezuela’s oil ministry surrendered Monday in Miami federal court for his alleged supporting role in a massive corruption and money-laundering scheme to steal $1.2 billion from the Venezuelan government, authorities said.

Carmelo Urdaneta Aqui, the former legal counsel to the Venezuelan Ministry of Oil and Mining, agreed to turn himself in and was escorted by federal agents on a flight to Miami over the weekend. Urdaneta is accused of accepting bribes along with other officials in the state-owned oil company known as PDVSA from wealthy people who were close to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro and did business with his government.

Urdaneta, 46, pleaded not guilty to a money-laundering conspiracy charge that potentially carries up to 20 years in prison. He was granted a $1.5 million bond, secured by four properties that he owns in South Florida, by Magistrate Judge Lauren Louis under an agreement between his defense attorney and prosecutors.

Urdaneta’s lawyer, Martin De Luca, declined to comment after Monday’s hearing in federal court.

Urdaneta and other Venezuelan officials are accused of allowing the elite ring of business people to make a sham loan to PDVSA so they could embezzle the country’s vast oil income through a government foreign-currency exchange system to amass illegal fortunes in the United States and other countries, according to the indictment. The alleged ringleader was Venezuelan Francisco Convit Guruceaga, who is accused of plotting with Urdaneta, other officials at PDVSA and influential business people with access to the highest levels of government. Convit’s defense attorney, Adam Kaufmann, declined to comment.

Court records describe a Venezuelan government culture in which officials, politicians and businessmen connected to t Maduro and his predecessor, the late Hugo Chávez, plundered the national oil company to enrich themselves while impoverishing the South American country.

Since 2018, federal prosecutor Michael Nadler and Homeland Security Investigations have moved to freeze hundreds of millions of dollars in bank and real estate assets belonging to the eight defendants named in the Miami money-laundering indictment — including Urdaneta’s $5.3 million condo at the Porsche Design Tower in Sunny Isles Beach. So far, two of those eight defendants have pleaded guilty.

A ninth defendant, Venezuelan banker Matthias Krull, who pleaded guilty to conspiring to launder some of the PDVSA money secreted away to European bank accounts, forfeited a Miami condo to satisfy a $600,000 judgment. Krull was charged separately because he agreed to cooperate with the U.S. Attorney’s Office. He was sentenced to 10 years in prison but is expected to see a reduction because of his substantial assistance in the investigation.

The alleged money-laundering conspiracy began in late 2014 with a sham loan to PDVSA that was repaid through a government currency-exchange scheme — siphoning $600 million from the state-owned oil company’s coffers, according to a criminal complaint. The defendants used an associate to launder a portion of the PDVSA funds in the United States. By 2015, the conspiracy had doubled to $1.2 billion embezzled from Venezuela’s national oil company.

In early 2016, the associate approached Homeland Security investigators in Miami about cooperating and becoming a confidential source, the complaint says. The source agreed to wear a recording device to launder $78 million in PDVSA funds that he had received from the loan contract with the national oil company. Urdaneta and others are accused of receiving some of that money from the source, the complaint says.

The federal probe, called Operation Money Flight, was launched with the initial focus on the defendants’ efforts to launder a portion of the $78 million.

“Two years and over one hundred recordings later, Operation Money Flight revealed an international conspiracy to launder the PDVSA funds through Miami and several large-scale international money-laundering organizations,” the complaint says. “More specifically, the investigation revealed the use of Miami real estate and sophisticated false-investment schemes to launder hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars.”

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