A former top official of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company pleaded guilty Wednesday in Miami federal court to playing a pivotal role in a $1.2 billion money-laundering racket that U.S. authorities say was run by some of the country’s wealthiest people with close ties to the Venezuelan president.
Abraham Edgardo Ortega, the former executive director of financial planning at Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA), admitted he accepted millions of dollars in bribes that were secretly wired to U.S. and other financial institutions, according to court records.
In exchange, Ortega allowed the ring’s members to embezzle hundreds of millions of dollars from the national oil company through loan- and currency-exchange schemes that ended up in European, Caribbean and U.S. banks as well as luxury South Florida real estate and other investments. Ortega, who worked at PDVSA for more than a decade, admitted he used his official role to give “priority” status to Venezuelan companies that did business with the government so they could tap into its vast oil income to make overnight fortunes.
Ortega, who surrendered to U.S. authorities in September after being charged this summer with eight other defendants, remains free on a $1 million bond as he assists the U.S. attorney’s office in the complex money-laundering case. He faces up to 10 years in prison at his sentencing Jan. 9 before U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams and must forfeit at least $12 million stolen from the Venezuelan government’s oil company that was laundered to the U.S. and elsewhere.
His defense attorneys, Lilly Ann Sanchez and Luis Delgado, said they are hopeful that Ortega receives a substantial reduction in his sentence based on his assistance providing valuable information about the other defendants and suspects in the sprawling Homeland Security Investigations case.
Ortega, who served as PDVSA’s top financial officer from 2014 to 2016, admitted in a statement filed with his plea agreement that he conspired with the leader of the money-laundering ring, Venezuelan billionaire Francisco Convit Guruceaga, who has not been arrested, and a Miami-based investment broker, Gustavo Adolfo Hernandez Frieri, who was detained in Italy and awaits extradition to the United States. Others also collaborated with Ortega, including a money manager who operated between South America and Miami and who became a confidential source for Homeland Security agents two years ago.
Ortega’s guilty plea to the conspiracy charge follows Monday’s sentencing of Swiss banker Matthias Krull to 10 years in prison for the same offense. Krull was based in Panama and provided private banking services to Venezuela’s elite, including his most prominent client, media mogul Raul Gorrín. Gorrín has not been charged in the Miami federal case, but multiple sources have confirmed he is one of numerous unnamed co-conspirators in a criminal affidavit filed by Homeland Security Investigations.
Krull, who was arrested in July and became the first defendant to cooperate with the U.S. Attorney’s Office, remains free on a $5 million bond and is staying in a Brickell area condo. He pleaded guilty in August in a deal struck between his defense attorney, Oscar S. Rodriguez, and prosecutor Michael Nadler.
As required in his plea agreement, Krull started providing evidence about the Venezuela-based money laundering network — including inside information about Gorrín, owner of the Globovisión network in Caracas, according to multiple sources familiar with the investigation.
Gorrín is suspected of steering $600 million from the country’s state-owned oil company to a European bank to enrich himself, the three stepsons of President Nicolás Maduro and other members of Venezuela’s politically connected elite, according to court records and multiple sources.