How the Chávez and Maduro regimes milked public projects for bribe money

Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez promised in 2007 that the Caracas Metro’s new Line 5 would be finished in five years. Ten years and billions of dollars later, only one of the nine planned stations had been completed.

One objective had been achieved, however. High-ranking officials in the Chavista government had milked the contract for millions of dollars in bribes. To obtain the profitable Caracas metro contract and others, Odebrecht paid at least $142 million — off the books, through a series of intermediaries — according to previously unpublished internal documents.

At least $92 million of that was funneled through an offshore company whose beneficiary is a Venezuelan man, Leopoldo Briceño Punceles, who has properties and businesses in Miami.

“If Odebrecht’s dirty money made its way from Venezuela to Miami through shell companies, this must be immediately investigated,” Florida Republican Sen. Marco Rubio said in a statement sent to the Miami Herald.

These figures derive from a massive leak of internal records belonging to Odebrecht S.A., a Brazilian-based construction conglomerate with a large footprint in South Florida through subsidiaries. A team of 19 news organizations, led by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and including the Miami Herald, el Nuevo Herald and parent company McClatchy, as well as Venezuela-based Armando Info, reviewed the documents, including emails, payment orders, Excel spreadsheets and logs.

The documents are from a parallel set of electronic books called Drousys, a secret accounting system created by Odebrecht’s Structured Operations Division specifically to handle communications about bribes and other undeclared payments. The unit became known as the Bribery Division.

The documents illustrate rampant corruption in the upper echelons of government in Venezuela, and identify some of the behind-the-scenes individuals who played pivotal roles.

“Paying bribes has become a way of life in Venezuela. These types of practices are the norm in most state-run entities, where employees earning $10 a month get to issue checks to contractors worth millions, and then enjoy a good life in the midst of all the ruin and poverty caused by their own corruption,” said José Amalio Graterol, an exiled Venezuelan lawyer.

In the course of investigations in Brazil and the United States, top Odebrecht executives have admitted that the Structured Operations Division was created to facilitate corrupt practices. The division conveyed the bribes through a string of subterfuges, including overpayments to service providers and subcontractors who did not appear in the projects’ official budgets.

Many of those payments were bribes to politicians and bureaucrats in Brazil and other countries, with the goal of obtaining an edge in the awarding of contracts.

That edge didn’t come cheap. The U.S. Department of Justice estimates that from 2001 to 2016, Odebrecht S.A. shelled out nearly $788 million off the books for more than 100 projects in 12 countries, 10 of them in Latin America: Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Mexico, Panama, Peru and Venezuela.

Venezuela accounted for more than its share. The company has admitted to laying out $98 million under the table, much of it in payments linked to never-completed projects during the government of Hugo Chávez and spilling over into the administration of his successor, Nicolás Maduro. Records in Drousys indicate the payments actually totaled at least $142 million just from 2011 to 2014, so the ultimate tally could be even higher.

Left-leaning former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva used Odebrecht as a foreign policy tool in the region. The massive scale of Odebrecht’s presence in Venezuela spoke of the importance Brazil gave its oil-rich neighbor in pursuing the common goal of challenging U.S. influence, said Thomas Shannon, who was U.S. ambassador in Brazil from 2010 to 2013.

“Chávez’s election, and the animosity that grows between Chávez and the United States, and Chávez’s efforts to limit U.S. influence in determining Venezuelan foreign policy,” the former U.S. diplomat noted, “becomes an important tool that Brazil uses [to] build a large, cohesive South America it had been seeking for a long time.”

Brazil used Odebrecht to cement the relationship with Chávez, who approved millions of dollars for no-bid contracts for the Brazilian construction company, enriching regime officials along the way.

The belief that money laundered by members of the Chavista regime ended up in the South Florida real estate market — an open secret voiced by many Venezuelan exiles — prompted the creation last year of the FBI’s Miami International Corruption Squad, a task force to investigate dirty money coming to the city.

To date the secret route of Odebrecht’s money in Venezuela leads to Haiman El Troudi, currently a national legislator but minister of public works from 2013 to 2015 and president of the Caracas Metro from 2010 to 2015 and the Los Teques Metro between 2010 and 2014.

The leak of records showed the degree to which Odebrecht S.A.’s Venezuela payments flowed through Haiman El Troudi, currently a national legislator but minister of public works from 2013 to 2015.

Although El Troudi’s alleged involvement with Odebrecht was made public two years ago, the Maduro regime has tried to silence the scandal, and prosecutors who sought to file charges against the former cabinet minister now live in exile. But the once-secret documents in Drousys leave no doubt that Odebrecht made large, irregular payments for projects supervised by El Troudi and companies linked to people in his inner circle.

For this to work, however, Odebrecht needed dozens of offshore companies through which to channel illicit payments. And court cases in the United States and Brazil make it clear that the role of the Structured Operations Division was just that, using intermediaries who lent their name and collected commissions.

From Caracas to Doral

One such alleged intermediary was the mysterious Leopoldo José Briceño Punceles. He is listed as the beneficiary of Cresswell Overseas S.A., a company registered in Panama in 2012 and still active. Little else is known — he keeps a low profile on social media. Public records in South Florida show that he was issued a Social Security number, has a residential address in Miami and has purchased several condominiums, primarily in the Kendall area. He also is the proprietor of three Florida-registered companies including a Doral strip-mall sushi restaurant called Soya, where a waitress says Leopoldo comes and goes between Miami and Venezuela with no fixed schedule.

Briceño Punceles quietly bought three condominium apartments in Miami between 2013 and 2015, for a little more than $1 million. He acquired a fourth property in 2018, bringing to $1.2 million the total invested in South Florida properties.

Briceño Punceles has offered conflicting versions of his relationship with Cresswell Overseas. In records for bank transfers obtained by Brazilian prosecutors, he is described as “beneficiary owner” of Cresswell Overseas. And the company’s registry in Panama lists him as president, director, secretary and treasurer.

But Briceño Punceles told Univision in 2016 that he never had any relationship with Odebrecht. And he told el Nuevo Herald that he was not the beneficiary of Cresswell Overseas.

“I have nothing to do with that,” he said in a brief telephone conversation in June.

His Miami lawyer later asserted that his client had never denied owning Cresswell Overseas and in fact had confirmed it in a court case in Antigua and Barbuda, where he has spent years battling to take control of about $50 million paid to him from 2014 to 2016 by companies associated with Odebrecht.

Delving deeper

According to transactions found in the Drousys system, in 2012 and 2014 alone Cresswell received at least $92 million from Odebrecht related to work on the Caracas Metro, the Petare cable train and the Guarenas-Guatire Metro — all of them unfinished construction projects.

Most of the payments to Cresswell were related to Line 5 of the Caracas Metro. Internal ledgers documenting the transactions include the amount and date, information about the route of the payments and the mysterious code name CAMELO. In all of the transactions, the Bribery Division obscured its activities by funneling payments through front companies created for that purpose.

Several of the records identify the transactions as consulting fees. In one transaction from December 2014, a Cresswell Overseas account in the Antigua branch of Meinl Bank received $2 million for “contract with Fincastle.” Between June and October 2013, Cresswell Overseas received about $13.8 million in an account at the Banco Espirito Santo, in Madeira, Portugal. And between September and December 2012, it received about $34 million in nine transfers to its Meinl Bank account from another Odebrecht front company.

Prosecutors in Brazil obtained copies of fictitious contracts that the Structured Operations Division disguised as consulting and other services offered between various offshore companies. The apparent purpose: to muddy up the waters around the flow of illicit money between Odebrecht and those doing its bidding.

In little-noticed testimony in the broad Brazilian investigation, Alessandro Cesar Dias Gomes, an Odebrecht official in Venezuela who cooperated with Brazilian prosecutors, confirmed that CAMELO was the recipient of the Cresswell Overseas payments and said CAMELO was Luis Delgado Contreras, a Venezuelan attorney. He said the lawyer served as an intermediary in the approval of contracts for the Caracas Metro Company and the Los Teques Metro Company. Both were under the jurisdiction of Venezuela’s Ministry for Land Transportation and Public Works.

Both Dias Gomes and Euzenando Azevedo, then president of Odebrecht operations in Venezuela, testified that Azevedo had a close relationship with Chávez. But after Chávez became ill, they hired Delgado Contreras to collect past-due payments to the company and secure new financing.

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Euzenando Azevedo, who was president of Odebrecht operations in Venezuela, testified to the symbiotic relationship between the company and Hugo Chávez.

Dias Gomes personally “handled” the relationship with Delgado Contreras, who took a 2 percent commission for each payment or contract he facilitated, according to the testimony. Dias Gomes said the 2 percent added up to more than $100 million.

Emails obtained as part of the leak tracked statements made and transactions cited in the testimony, including one June 2012 payment to CAMELO for $490,000 for the Guarenas-Guatire Metro.

Dias Gomes recalled a meeting with an executive of Meinl Bank and Delgado Contreras in which they agreed that Delgado Contreras would open an account in the bank to facilitate the delivery of the payments. “The meeting lasted half an hour, and at the end it was very clear that everyone knew the account was for receiving illegal payments,” the Odebrecht executive told prosecutors.

Delgado Contreras could not be contacted for this story.

Former Venezuelan prosecutor Pedro Lupera, who investigated the corruption related to Odebrecht in his country before fleeing, said Delgado Contreras appears to have been “the right hand” of El Troudi. In their testimony, both Azevedo and Dias Gomes underscored the influence that Delgado Contreras appeared to have over El Troudi, who was then the minister of transportation.

Until now, the role played by Briceño Punceles, the registered beneficiary of Cresswell Overseas, has been a mystery.

His Miami-based lawyer, Luis Delgado explained that the two Venezuelans, Briceño Punceles and Delgado Contreras, shared a business “collecting the debts” owed to Odebrecht. They split the proceeds, he said, between Cresswell Overseas and another offshore called Alfa International.

Luis Delgado is no relation to Delgado Contreras.

Odebrecht first hired Delgado Contreras’ law firm — Escritorio Delgado Chapelin — to collect overdue payments owed to Odebrecht. This included finding new sources of financing such as issuing bonds to retire old debts. One Odebrecht executive testified that Delgado Contreras helped facilitate $12 billion in contract enhancements in Venezuela.

“Our client worked with the Venezuelan National Office of Public Credit, which authorized and assisted in different debt emissions” between 2012 and 2015, Luis Delgado said. “The bond issues required approval from the National Assembly and the firm provided assistance and consulting in those efforts.”

Delgado Contreras and Briceño Punceles went as far as lobbying the government to tap into a fund designed to promote Chinese investments in Venezuela.

The work carried out by Briceño Punceles and his partner included reviewing and processing invoices “with the appropriate entities for payment, providing supporting documentation and securing sources of financing,” Luis Delgado, the Miami lawyer, said in a written statement.

The Venezuelans were shocked, he suggested, to learn of wrongdoing.

“At the time that Odebrecht retained Mr. Delgado [Contreras] and Mr. Briceño, Odebrecht enjoyed an impeccable reputation. Neither Mr. Delgado nor Mr. Briceño had any reason to believe that Odebrecht was involved in any illicit activities,” he said.

There are some things that don’t add up. The two Venezuelans made tens of millions off of collection commissions, were paid by offshore companies and didn’t produce for reporters any billing records or samples of their work flow.

The testimony of the Odebrecht executives, as well as financial records obtained by Swiss prosecutors, suggest that the money may not have stayed with Delgado Contreras and Briceño, and perhaps reached senior officials in the Chávez and later Maduro governments in charge of approving the construction projects, such as El Troudi.

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The corruption involving Odebrecht S.A. flourished under Hugo Chávez but continued under his successor, Nicolás Maduro, right. JUAN BARRETO AFP/Getty Images

“I have no doubt that for Luis Delgado Contreras to succeed in the ‘missions’ that were assigned to him, part of the remuneration he received was passed to other people, certainly including some public officials,” Azevedo told Brazilian prosecutors in 2016.

In a 2017 document shared with the Miami Herald, Swiss prosecutors investigating Odebrecht money there found that El Troudi’s wife, María Eugenia Baptista Zacarías, and her mother, Elita del Valle Zacarías Dias, were registered as the beneficiaries along with Delgado Contreras of an account held by Credit Suisse in the name of Alfa International.

The Swiss investigators also found seven other accounts held by El Troudi relatives in the same bank, and several others in the name of Delgado Contreras. In 2011 and 2012, the Alfa International account received 21.7 million Swiss francs — about $23 million at the time.

The Alfa account also received deposits from Cresswell Overseas for 16.3 million francs, or about $17.3 million. The prosecutors found that the money was later sent to accounts in the name of El Troudi relatives in Switzerland and other countries.

By 2017, Alfa’s accounts were drained.

El Troudi did not respond to a request for comment on this story.

According to attorney Luis Delgado, Briceño Punceles and his partner, Delgado Contreras, believe they did nothing wrong by accepting the Odebrecht payments through offshore companies for services the attorney sometimes described as collecting debts and other times said was consulting work or lobbying.

“My client denies having paid any government official or having provided any private information or having engaged in any unlawful conduct,” Delgado said.

He added: “They didn’t know about those accounts. They thought they were dealing with Odebrecht. In their mind, they were not doing nothing illegal.”

El Nuevo Herald reporter Antonio María Delgado and the Miami Herald’s information services director Monika Leal contributed to this story.

Follow Nora Gámez Torres on Twitter: @ngameztorres.

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This project was produced in partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.