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US charges 5 ex-Venezuelan officials in oil bribery probe

U.S. prosecutors believe that Venezuela’s former petroleum czar and ambassador to the United Nations received bribes as part of an alleged multibillion-dollar graft strategy from the South America country’s oil business, an official familiar with the U.S. investigation said Monday.

Rafael Ramirez, that had been among Venezuela’s most powerful officials before he resigned from the U.N. article in December, was appointed as a bribe receiver although not charged in an indictment against five other former senior officials that was partly unsealed.

In Monday’s indictment, prosecutors in Houston allege two of those charged individuals told businessmen that proceeds from bribe payments they made in trade for quick payments and contracts with Venezuela’s state-run oil giant PDVSA will be shared with a senior Venezuelan official, recognized from the unsealed portion as “Official B.”

That unidentified Venezuelan politician is Ramirez, a U.S. official told The Associated Press. The officer agreed to talk about the case only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

In 2016, Venezuela’s opposition-led National Assembly said $11 billion went missing in PDVSA in the 2004-2014 period, when Ramirez had been in control of the business. In 2015, the U.S. Treasury Department accused a bank in Andorra of laundering some $2 billion stolen from PDVSA.

Ramirez in the past has denied any wrongdoing and ignored the U.S. probe into PDVSA as a politically motivated attempt to sabotage President Nicolas Maduro’s socialist government. After resigning his U.N. article, Ramirez left the United States to an undisclosed location, and he did not immediately respond to a request Monday seeking comment.

Prosecutors from the U.S. as well as Venezuela have been slowly closing in on his inner circle.

Among those charged Monday was PDVSA’s former leader of corporate safety, Rafael Reiter, that frequently appeared alongside Ramirez in public. Still another was a former deputy energy minister, Nervis Villalobos, who dwelt in as head of PDVSA if Ramirez was on official business overseas. The two Reiter and Villalobos were detained in Spain in October on U.S. warrants and are pending extradition along with a third former official, Luis Carlos de Leon.

Separately, Ramirez is also the target of a criminal investigation in Venezuela for taking a cut of petroleum contracts brokered by partners including his cousin, Diego Salazar, who had been detained in December. Ramirez has known as the Venezuelan probe retaliation for his decision to break with Maduro, who he’s accused of conducting Venezuela’s once-thriving oil sector into the floor and abandoning the socialist ideals of the late Hugo Chavez.

Much of the evidence gathered from U.S. prosecutors stems from a case in Houston against two Venezuelan businessmen living in the USA, Roberto Rincon and Abraham Shiera, who in 2015 were charged with violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act by paying bribes in exchange for contracts to build electricity generators for PDVSA in a time Venezuela was suffering widespread electricity outages. They are among 10 individuals and officials that have so far pleaded guilty in connection to the U.S. probes into corruption in PDVSA.

Based on Monday’s indictment, both men were approached by PDVSA officials in 2011, in a time the cash-strapped petroleum monopoly was in arrears with several sellers. The officials, referred to as the “management team” from the indictment, are alleged to have offered Rincon and Sheira’s businesses priority along with other sellers and future company in exchange for bribes in the amount of 10 percent of all payments received. During the next few years, the 2 men supposedly sent over $27 million to an account in Switzerland for which Villalobos and De Leon were approved signers.

Two of the officials, Leon and Villalobos, clarified to the businessmen that the bribe proceeds will be shared with all Official B and another unnamed senior who also has yet to be charged, the indictment claims.

In text messages, the charges allege, the conspirators used ambiguous terms such as “ration” and “candy” to refer to the bribes as well as exchanged charts of how much was owed. Prosecutors also allege that vacationers bought expensive gifts for the defendants and their partners, including a $10,000 handbag along with a holiday vacation in the Bahamas. On Reiter’s behalf, in addition they allegedly purchased a condominium in the Miami Four Seasons and an armored vehicle and spent in a film.

None of the shell companies and bank account used to hide the bribe payments appear to have been in Ramirez’s title.

But in 2014, Reiter offered to Rincon invoices for English classes being taken by two of Official B’s kids in the amount of over $25,000, the indictment says. A week after, funds in precisely the exact same amount from a business controlled by Rincon were allegedly transferred to the school.

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