South Florida

Miami financial advisor pleads guilty to laundering millions in PetroEcuador bribery case

A Miami financial advisor who faced trial Tuesday on corruption and money-laundering charges that implicated Ecuador’s national oil company and Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht has decided to plead guilty.

Frank Roberto Chatburn Ripalda, who has American and Ecuadorian citizenship, admitted in a plea agreement that he used the U.S. financial system to launder money to promote foreign bribery schemes and hide the illegal payments to government officials in Ecuador.

Chatburn, who pleaded guilty Friday to a money-laundering-conspiracy charge, paid millions of dollars as kickbacks to PetroEcuador officials in exchange for contracts with the state oil company between 2013 and 2018, according to federal prosecutors in Miami and Washington, D.C.

He also concealed millions in bribes paid to one Ecuadorian official by Odebrecht through several shell companies and bank accounts in multiple places, including the United States, prosecutors said.

Chatburn, 42, represented by defense attorneys Howard Srebnick and Jackie Perczek, faces up to 20 years in prison at his sentencing Dec. 18 before U.S. District Judge Marcia Cooke.

Chatburn is now among 10 defendants, including Ecuadorian officials, oil-services contractors, and financial advisors, who have pleaded guilty to criminal charges in Miami and other U.S. courts for their roles in the PetroEcuador bribery and money-laundering racket.

The Justice Department’s case against Chatburn and others followed Odebrecht’s guilty plea in late 2016 to conspiring to violate U.S. anti-bribery laws involving a vast scheme to pay nearly $800 million to public officials in 12 foreign countries where the Brazilian company has built projects. Among them: Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, and Venezuela.

In June, the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald, along with parent company McClatchy, published a series of stories showing how Odebrecht set up a “bribery division” in a Miami office to funnel kickbacks to foreign government officials to obtain and keep multimillion-dollar construction projects.

Documents — provided to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists by the Ecuadorian news outlet La Posta — revealed the machinery behind Odebrecht’s massive bribery network. The records, however, did not implicate Odebrecht’s subsidiary construction firm in Miami. That firm’s projects include AmericanAirlines Arena, the Florida International University football stadium, airport improvements in Miami and Fort Lauderdale, PortMiami, and highways.

In Chatburn’s plea agreement, he admitted conspiring with an oil-company contractor, Argentinian businessman Ramiro Andres Luque Flores, to pay about $3 million in bribes to Ecuadorian officials in an effort to obtain and retain contracts with PetroEcuador. Luque, who was charged in federal court in New York, had several PetroEcuador contracts for hazardous-waste-disposal services valued at $38 million, according to court records.

“As a financial advisor to the contractor, Chatburn agreed to make bribe payments for the benefit of several then-PetroEcuador officials through the use of shell companies and bank accounts in the United States, Panama, the Cayman Islands, Curacao and Switzerland,” prosecutors said in a news release. “To conceal the bribe payments and to promote the scheme, Chatburn established Panamanian shell companies with Swiss bank accounts on behalf of two then-PetroEcuador officials.”

Chatburn was assisted in the bribery operation in Miami by Jose Larrea, who pleaded guilty to a money-laundering-conspiracy charge last year and was sentenced a little more than two years in prison. Larrea helped wire about $1 million of the total bribery payments through the U.S. banking system, according to court records.

Separately, Chatburn acknowledged in his plea agreement that he conspired with an unnamed Ecuadorian government official to hide bribe payments intended for the official from Odebrecht between 2013 and 2015. The series of kickbacks, court records show, totaled more than $1 million.