HOUSTON (AP) — A Venezuelan national living in Florida and four other people have pleaded guilty to federal charges for a bribery scheme involving millions of dollars in contracts between U.S.-based energy firms and Venezuela’s state-run oil company, prosecutors said Wednesday.
Officials responsible for procurement at the company, known by its initials PDVSA, were wined, dined and treated to swanky hotel stays and a home mortgage in Texas was even paid off, according to court documents.
The case is being closely watched in Venezuela, where the opposition accuses the governing socialists of looting PDVSA and bankrupting the nation. Venezuela has the world’s largest proven oil reserves and crude accounts for more than 95 percent of its exports.
Abraham Shiera, 52, of Coral Gables, Florida, entered his guilty plea to foreign bribery and fraud charges Tuesday before a federal judge in Houston. He is to be sentenced in July.
Shiera was named in December in an 18-count indictment with Robert Rincon, 55, of The Woodlands, Texas, when both were arrested. They are accused of money laundering and violating the Federal Corrupt Practices Act, which bars payments to officials of foreign governments to assist business deals.
Rincon’s trial is scheduled for next month in Houston.
Four other men, including three PDVSA officials, pleaded guilty earlier to charges related to the bribery scheme, according to documents unsealed Tuesday by U.S. District Judge Gray Miller.
Prosecutors said Wednesday the three PDVSA officials acknowledged accepting bribes from Shiera or Rincon to help the two men’s Florida and Texas energy companies win contracts, and conspired with Shiera and Rincon to launder the proceeds.
The three, Jose Ramos, 38, Christian Maldonado, 39, and Alfonzo Gravina, 53, all from the Houston suburb of Katy, pleaded guilty in December under seal to conspiracy to commit money laundering.
Another man, Moises Millan, 32, of Katy, pleaded guilty in January to one count of conspiracy to violate the Corrupt Practices Act for his role in the bribery scheme, according to the unsealed documents. Millan had worked for Shiera, prosecutors said.
“These five convictions announced today hold to account bribe payers as well as the corrupt foreign officials who laundered the bribe money through the United States,” Assistant Attorney General Leslie Caldwell said Wednesday.
Houston-based U.S. Attorney Kenneth Magidson called bribery “a serious federal crime that undermines commercial and political relations around the world.”
Shiera, who was arrested in Florida, said in his plea agreement that he worked with Rincon to submit bids to provide equipment and services to the Venezuelan energy company through their companies. Court documents show he had at least six firms, three in Florida. Rincon ran four energy companies, at least two in Texas and one in Florida.
Federal prosecutors said the scheme began in 2009 and was intended to ensure their firms won lucrative energy contracts with PDVSA. Shiera also told prosecutors he bribed PDVSA officials to get his companies on the energy company’s approved vendor lists so he could get paid ahead of other vendors.
The December indictment said the bribes consisted of money, recreational travel, meals and entertainment. It said a bank in Panama was used to transfer money from the United States and that among the payments was nearly $165,000 to pay off the Texas home mortgage of one of the men who once worked as a PDVSA purchasing manager.
The indictment also showed another Venezuelan official received a $15,000 reservation at the Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, Florida, and a hotel stay and rental car in Barcelona, Venezuela. It said that Shiera authorized a whiskey purchase for another PDVSA official.
Two of Rincon’s companies were involved in transferring more than $25 million from a Texas bank to accounts in Switzerland in 2011 and 2012, according to the indictment.
In December, PDVSA denounced what it said was an “international campaign to discredit” the oil company by linking it to alleged criminal acts by Venezuelan individuals and other companies.
And Rafael Ramirez, Venezuela’s U.N. ambassador and PDVSA’s president for a decade until 2014, said in February he wasn’t worried about being indicted as part of bribery investigations. He also dismissed the possibility of cooperating with U.S. investigations of bribery schemes.
Ramirez said he did not know Shiera or Rincon.
He has characterized allegations of corruption and U.S. investigations of those allegations as an attempt to undermine Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro’s government, which has had tense relations with Washington.
“There has always been interference in our affairs,” Ramirez said in February. “We are used to it. We understand that all of this is a political confrontation and we accept that. If we took it personally, we would just make our lives miserable.”