U.S. Targets Venezuela’s Maduro Regime With Fresh Charges, Sanctions
23 Mar 2020

The U.S. quietly unsealed criminal cases against two former officials at Venezuela’s state oil monopoly this month as part of what American officials say is a new round of charges and sanctions against a Maduro government they accuse of systemic corruption, narcotrafficking and stealing billions of dollars in state funds.

Prosecutors have also charged a businessman associated with the subsidiary of the company, Petróleos de Venezuela, SA (PdVSA), that the officials worked for.

Some of the actions have been delayed in part by the coronavirus pandemic. But senior U.S. officials say they are part of a Trump administration effort to double down on its pressure campaign against President Nicolás Maduro’s government after failing to deliver on its primary goal of ousting the regime.

Federal prosecutors in Miami, New York and Washington, D.C., are targeting what they allege is vast corruption in the country’s beleaguered petroleum sector and currency markets, state-aided narcotrafficking, and money-laundering through Venezuela’s military-run emergency food program.

They have charged dozens of defendants—many of whom have pleaded guilty in U.S. courts—and are continuing to probe alleged bribery and money laundering involving joint ventures with PdVSA, according to court documents and people familiar with the matter.

Those ventures involve some of the world’s largest energy companies, including Chevron Corp., Russia’s PAO Rosneft, China National Petroleum Co. Prosecutors didn’t allege any wrongdoing by the foreign oil companies. The foreign oil firms have minority stakes in the joint ventures; some have said they don’t control how their money is spent. Representatives for CNPC and Rosneft couldn’t be reached for comment.

“Chevron and our affiliates abide by a code of business ethics under which we comply with all applicable laws and regulations, and we expect our business partners to conduct business in compliance with these requirements as well,” a Chevron spokesman said.

On Friday, Miami prosecutors charged Leonardo Santilli, a Venezuelan citizen who controlled several companies working for the joint ventures, with money laundering in Miami and related offenses.

Mr. Santilli’s companies allegedly received nearly $150 million from the PdVSA subsidiaries between 2014-2017, according to court documents. More than $100 million of that was allegedly transferred to accounts, trusts and shell companies controlled by him and other Venezuelan individuals, prosecutors allege.

Mr. Santilli allegedly used millions of the funds to bribe senior officials in the Venezuelan military and government on behalf of the joint ventures, according to the court documents, which also allege that employees at Mr. Santilli’s companies tracked the payments in a spreadsheet, calling  the transactions “comisiones,” or commissions.

Mr. Santilli couldn’t be reached for comment. Venezuelan officials didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Earlier this month, federal judges in Miami also unsealed charges against two state-oil company executives at one the of subsidiaries Mr. Santilli allegedly received money from, Lennys Rangel and Edoardo Orsoni. Both worked at Petrocedeno, a joint venture between PdVSA and French oil giant Total SA and Norway’s Equinor AS A. Representatives for Equinor and Total didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Prosecutors alleged Ms. Rangel, the venture’s former procurement officer, and Mr. Orsoni, former general counsel of both Petrocedneo and parent PdVSA, conspired to launder millions in bribe payments through the U.S., including by purchasing Miami condos. The bribes were allegedly paid to Ms. Rangel, Mr. Orsoni and other PdVSA executives to obtain lucrative contracts from Petrocedeno.

Both were charged in criminal informations, a method that often indicates a defendant is cooperating. The pair voluntarily turned themselves in and they were released on bail.

By Christopher M. Matthews, Ian Talley and Aruna Viswanatha, The Wall Street Journal, 22 March 2020

Read more at The Wall Street Journal

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