In mid-June, a top official in the Colombian attorney general’s office traveled to Miami to give an anti-corruption presentation to Internal Revenue Service investigators.
But Luis Gustavo Moreno Rivera, national director of anti-corruption in Colombia, had ulterior motives for the trip, U.S. authorities say.
Moreno, and a fellow attorney acting as his middleman, met privately at the Dolphin Mall in Doral with a Colombian politician who had left the country to elude a corruption investigation. Moreno and the attorney met the politician in the mall bathroom to collect $10,000 in cash stuffed in a large manila envelope — a bribe in exchange for giving him confidential information about the corruption probe back home, according to U.S. authorities.
On Tuesday, Moreno’s alleged shakedown of the Colombian politician, who was secretly working undercover for U.S. authorities, led to the high-ranking Colombian official’s arrest in Bogota on money laundering charges filed in Miami. The Colombian attorney who traveled with him to Miami, Leonardo Luis Pinilla Gomez, was also arrested in Bogota.
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Rivera, 35, and Pinilla, 31, the Colombian attorney who traveled with him, were charged with one count of conspiring to launder money to promote foreign bribery. A criminal complaint charging the Colombians was filed under seal on Friday.
Both Moreno and Pinilla were arrested in Colombia on a provisional arrest warrant, or Interpol Red Notice. Both are being held at La Picota prison in Bogota, where Colombian drug traffickers are held, and face extradition to Miami. That judicial process normally takes months.
Colombian officials in the attorney general’s office condemned the alleged extortion scheme orchestrated by Moreno and Pinilla, saying it “gravely hurt our institutional integrity.”
According to the criminal complaint, the Colombian politician who assisted the feds was first approached by Moreno and Pinilla last November in an attempt to obtain a bribe of 100 million Colombian pesos ($34,500). Moreno and Pinilla offered to give the politician copies of sworn statements taken from Colombian witnesses who had testified against him in the corruption case in his homeland, the complaint said.
In April, the politician and his family left Colombia for Miami, where he contacted both Colombian and U.S. authorities about the alleged extortion scheme. Pinilla, acting as the middleman, stayed in touch with the politician.
About two weeks ago, both Moreno and Pinilla traveled to Miami and met with the politician who — at the direction of Drug Enforcement Administration agents — provided Moreno and Pinilla with a $10,000 deposit of the bribe money, the complaint said. Recorded conversations revealed that Moreno and Pinilla discussed the anti-corruption official’s authority to control the probe of the Colombian politician, and that Moreno could inundate his prosecutors with work so that they would be unable to focus on the investigation.
In exchange, Moreno and Pinilla asked for a bribe payment of 400 million Colombian pesos ($132,000) with an additional $30,000 to be paid before Moreno left Miami for Colombia, said the complaint, filed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Tony Gonzalez.
The complaint further alleges that several of the $100 bills from the $10,000 paid to Moreno and Pinilla were found on Moreno and his wife as they boarded their flight back to Bogota on June 19.
According to sources familiar with the DEA investigation, the politician who assisted U.S. authorities was Alejandro Lyons Muskus, a former Colombian provincial governor. Lyons faces 20 counts of corruption-related charges in Colombia, where prosecutors have accused him of running an embezzlement scheme involving royalties — payments made for the right to extract natural resources.
Lyons is the latest of a string of South American politicians who are accused of plundering their governments’ coffers and then flee to South Florida for refuge. Since April, the DEA has been using Lyons as a federal source, though he is not identified in the criminal complaint unsealed Tuesday in Miami federal court. Despite his assistance, Lyons is expected to face potential criminal charges in the United States as well as in Colombia.
Miami Herald staff writer Kyra Gurney contributed to this report.