Venezuela oil official sent to prison for 2 years for bribes

MIAMI — A former Venezuelan oil executive was sentenced to more than two years in prison for taking at least $12 million in bribes from businessmen who allegedly raided the coffers of the state-run oil company.

Abraham Ortega is the first former Venezuelan official to be sentenced as part of Operation Money Flight, a sweeping federal investigation out of Miami that has uncovered $1.2 billion in corruption at PDVSA, as the state oil company is known.

The investigation focused on a group of insider businessmen known as “Bolichicos” — for their ties to the Bolivarian Revolution started by the late Hugo Chávez — who used kickbacks to engineer bogus currency deals and other financial machinations with PDVSA that netted huge, overnight profits.

Judge Kathleen Williams’ 28 month sentence was less than half what prosecutors had been seeking in acknowledgement of his quick surrender and meaningful cooperation. Ortega has served as PDVSA’s top finance official between 2014 and 2016.

Ortega, holding back tears, apologized for his actions and said he was ashamed for his involvement in the corruption that has permeated Venezuelan society.

“Mr. Ortega is very pleased with the outcome of the case,” his attorney, Lilly Ann Sanchez, told The Associated Press. “The moment he found out about allegations against him he sought immediately to make amends and do as much as possible to assist the U.S.”

In his plea agreement, Ortega claims that $2 million of the bribes came from businessman Francisco Convit, a co-defendant living in Venezuela, in exchange for prioritizing overdue payments to a Russian bank in a joint venture with PDVSA. A U.S. lawyer for Convit declined to comment.

The payments were made through an unnamed informant who recorded conversations with Ortega and other co-conspirators under the direction of federal investigators.

Ortega also admitted that he accepted $10 million in bribes for his participation in a PDVSA embezzlement scheme involving a fake loan and foreign-exchange contract.

Part of Ortega’s proceeds from the bribery scheme was laundered through a Miami-based investment fund headed by Gustavo Hernandez Frieri, who Judge Williams sentenced last week to nearly four years in prison for his role in the conspiracy.

As part of their case against Ortega, prosecutors are seeking to seize bank accounts in the Bahamas and Switzerland as well as a $2 million financial interest in Domaine Select Wine & Spirits, a Manhattan-based importer of Italian wine where Hernandez was an investor. Domaine was sold following Hernandez’s arrest and changed its name.

Follow Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman

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