Feds step up efforts to target Venezuelans accused of money laundering in Miami
02 Dec 2020

Federal authorities are stepping up their efforts to seize millions of dollars deposited in Miami bank accounts that they say were used to pay kickbacks to Venezuelan government officials for inflated contracts with the national oil company, PDVSA.

The latest target: Natalino D’Amato. The contractor is accused of selling $160 million worth of equipment to subsidiaries of the Venezuelan oil monopoly, receiving the payments in his account at Mercantil Bank in Miami and then paying bribes to government officials to secure the PDVSA deals, according to an indictment. Of that total, U.S. authorities have moved to take $45 million that D’Amato is holding in seven personal and corporate accounts at Wells Fargo, Bank of America and an investment company.

D’Amato, 61, a dual Italian and Venezuelan citizen, is charged in the 11-count indictment with a money-laundering conspiracy and related offenses between 2013 and 2017. The alleged conspiracy involved oil companies from China, Europe, Russia and the United States that did joint ventures with PDVSA, and it was centered around five Venezuelan procurement officials who signed off on the supply contracts with D’Amato’s companies in exchange for millions in bribery payments, according to the indictment.

D’Amato is still at large living in Venezuela, but his lawyer says he plans to fight the charges and seek to recover his money frozen by the feds.

“Natalino D’Amato is innocent and is not cooperating with the United States, which is only interested in his hard-earned money from his legitimate businesses,” attorney David O. Markus told the Miami Herald Monday.

Markus’ emphasis on his client’s determination to fight the money-laundering charges is more than defense posturing. His client’s case is similar to another brought in Miami earlier this year — one that ended tragically in Venezuela.

In September, another Venezuelan businessman charged in Miami with laundering millions of dollars from PDVSA oil contracts was gunned down by a motorcycle assassin in Venezuela because he was suspected of cooperating with federal prosecutors and Homeland Security Investigations in Miami.

Leonardo Santilli died from several gunshot wounds in what police described as a possible professional hit, Venezuelan authorities said. Witnesses said the assailant fired as many as eight times at Santilli before leaving on the motorcycle, according to news media reports and an Instagram video.

By Jay Weaver, Miami Herald, 1 December 2020

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