A former Venezuelan Attorney General who challenged President Nicolas Maduro by siding with his opponents was implicated in a serious corruption case involving a Venezuelan businessman who pleaded guilty to paying $ 1 million in bribes this week. two people familiar with the case said Thursday.
The former official, Luisa Ortega, is not mentioned by name in the federal Miami case. But in silently pleading guilty on Monday to a single charge of conspiring to defraud the United States, businessman Carlos Urbano Fermin admitted that he paid about $ 1 million in bribes to a “high-ranking prosecutor” in Venezuela as “insurance” against any investigation into its extensive construction contracts with the state oil giant PDVSA
The anonymous Venezuelan official is Ortega, the two people familiar with the case said. They agreed to provide the details only if not mentioned by name because they should not have discussed the investigation, which is still ongoing.
Ortega did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But last year, when Fermin was accused, he said the corruption allegations were provoked by Venezuela’s arrest of Fermin’s brother in 2019 and were an attempt by the Maduro government to coerce a confession and obfuscate its reputation.
Ortega, a longtime admirer of the late Hugo Chávez, broke with the socialist government of Venezuela in 2017 over what she called the country’s descent into dictatorship when Maduro gutted the opposition-controlled National Assembly and created an assembly. parallel constitutional to rule supreme.
For her outspoken views, she was removed from the post of Attorney General and promptly fled to neighboring Colombia, where she and a team of exiled prosecutors sharpened their attacks on corruption at home and provided the ICC with evidence of violations. of human rights allegedly committed by the Maduro government.
Allies of opposition leader Juan Guaidó rallied in her defense, calling her Venezuela’s “legitimate” chief prosecutor and trying to use her defection to build a broader, anti-Maduro coalition.
But he could never completely shake his reputation as a loyalist who served as the chief judicial executor of the Bolivarian revolution for a decade. The United States has always kept its distance by refusing to grant his request to travel to Washington, two American officials told The Associated Press in 2017. It didn’t help that in a 2015 speech to the National Assembly, Ortega criticized the “powerful of the north” for their “colonial projects” on Venezuela’s oil wealth.
According to a three-page, heavily drafted factual statement accompanying his request, Fermin said that between 2012 and 2016 his companies secured numerous large contracts from three PDVSA joint ventures with foreign oil companies – including China National. Petroleum Company, the Russian Rosneft and the French Total SUA.
In early 2017, Ortega’s office carried out an investigation into the award of contracts with joint ventures in the Orinoco belt that sit atop the largest crude oil reserves in the world, according to Fermin’s appeal. . Around the same time, he was approached by a lawyer in Venezuela who was close to the nameless high-ranking prosecutor with the promise that he could cancel any criminal investigation, Fermin said.
Describing himself as an “insurance policy”, the broker “informed the defendant that he had the ability to prevent criminal charges,” according to the court filing.
Later, Fermin said, he transferred about $ 1 million from the United States to accounts for the benefit of the unnamed Venezuelan official, including a $ 100,000 payment to a bank in the Miami suburb of Coral Gables. The Venezuelan government has never presented charges against Fermin’s companies.
US Assistant Attorney Michael Berger charged Fermin 13 months ago, but the Venezuelan was only arrested this month. After pleading guilty this week, he was released on $ 100,000 personal bail, a sign that he cooperated with investigators. He is expected to be sentenced in September.
Joshua Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman