A former executive at Venezuela’s state-owned oil company has pleaded guilty in a currency exchange scheme targeting the state-run oil company, the latest in the unfolding investigation of an alleged $1.2 billion fraud that cleaned funds through South Florida real estate.
Abraham Edgardo Ortega pleaded guilty Wednesday to money laundering conspiracy before U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams in Miami. Ortega, a Venezuelan national who is free on bond, faces sentencing Jan. 9.
Ortega admitted taking bribes, including one for $12 million, for participating in the scheme to embezzle funds from Petroleos de Venezuela, or PDVSA, and worked with at least one other defendant charged in the laundering scheme.
The funds were cleaned by Ortega and others by putting the money into an investment fund before pulling it out again, federal prosecutors charged.
Defense attorney Lilly Ann Sanchez said her client voluntarily came to the U.S. on Sept. 11 after an initial set of charges was filed last summer, and he “quickly accepted responsibility.”
“I believe that the U.S. government appreciates the magnitude of the information that Mr. Ortega can provide and his assistance in the investigation that has been going on for quite some time in the U.S.,” said Sanchez of The LS Law Firm in Miami.
Ortega worked in PDVSA’s finance branch from 2004 to 2016, ultimately serving as executive director of financial planning, according to a factual proffer he signed Wednesday.
He also admitted accepting other bribes, including $10 million to work on a corrupt loan agreement between PDVSA and an undisclosed company. The other company made a loan to PDVSA in Venezuelan bolivars, and then the oil company repaid the loan in U.S. dollars.
Because it was determined that the lender wasn’t “reputable enough,” a different company was used to make the loan and assigned its loan contract to the first company, according to the proffer.
Prosecutors charged the scheme capitalized on Venezuela’s fixed government exchange rate to increase the U.S. dollar value of stolen funds by as much as 10 times, according to the proffer.
Ortega’s plea came two days after Matthias Krull, a former wealth manager at Swiss bank Julius Baer Group Ltd., was sentenced to 10 years in prison for his role laundering embezzled funds.
One of the South Florida connections in the ongoing investigation is real estate purchased with fraud proceeds. A 3,171-square-foot unit in the glitzy Porsche Design Tower, the Sunny Isles Beach condominium built by Dezer Development and equipped with the Dezervator elevator for residents’ cars, was allegedly used in an ownership transfer between two defendants as a fee for money laundering services.
Federal authorities also have issued forfeiture notices for other properties, including two estates in Coral Gables’ affluent Cocoplum enclave plus a home in Miami’s Bay Point neighborhood, according to notices filed Aug. 29.