Venezuela bribery witness gets light sentence in wake of Biden's pardoning of Maduro ally

PTI | Miami | Updated: 17-02-2024 05:40 IST | Created: 17-02-2024 05:40 IST
Venezuela bribery witness gets light sentence in wake of Biden's pardoning of Maduro ally
  • Country:
  • United States

A Venezuelan businessman who helped hide almost USD 17 million in bribe payments by an ally of President Nicolas Maduro was sentenced to six months in prison by a federal judge who expressed frustration that his cooperation with law enforcement was undone by President Joe Biden's recent pardon of a top US criminal target.

Orlando Contreras has been working with the US Drug Enforcement Administration since 2019 to investigate corruption in the South American nation.

As part of that assistance, prosecutors said, he made several dangerous trips to Venezuela to gather evidence against businessman Alex Saab and former Gov. Jose Vielma.

Saab and Vielma both had been targeted by a secret spying programme exposed by The Associated Press in which the DEA sent undercover informants into Venezuela to surreptitiously record and bring criminal charges against Maduro's inner circle.

Both men were later indicted in separate corruption cases. But while Vielma remains a fugitive, the US freed Saab in December as part of a swap for 10 Americans and a Pentagon defence contractor who had been imprisoned in Venezuela.

US District Court Judge Rodolfo Ruiz said he was persuaded to grant Contreras even more leniency than the government recommended because of the risks he took in pursuit of Saab — once a top criminal defendant but now someone who, ensconced in Venezuela, is unlikely ever to face justice in the US again.

"Everybody skipped town,'' Ruiz said, ''and he's the only one who decided to stay and face justice." Saab, 52, was welcomed home as a hero in December by Maduro and immediately launched into a tirade against the US, claiming he had been tortured while awaiting extradition from Cape Verde in a bid to make him turn on Maduro.

His release was seen as a major concession to Maduro as the Biden administration seeks to improve relations with the OPEC nation and pave the way for freer elections. That goal appears more elusive than ever as Maduro refuses to lift a ban on his main rival, Maria Corina Machado, from seeking public office and newly arrested opponents.

Contreras, in pleading guilty last year, admitted to receiving nearly USD 17 million between 2016 and 2019 to facilitate bribes made in exchange for USD 1.6 billion in government contracts awarded to Saab and a partner to import medicine and food boxes at a time of widespread hunger in the country. As part of the alleged scheme, the co-conspirators inflated the prices of basic staples charged to Venezuela's government, using the extra amount to pay kickbacks to officials.

Contreras said he served as Vielma's intermediary, transferring about USD 11 million to offshore accounts at the direction of the then-governor. He kept the remaining amount for himself but is now forfeiting that to the US government. To date, he has handed over USD 6,50,000, two luxury watches and is liquidating another USD 1,00,000, his attorneys said in court Friday.

"The government wants to punish one of the few people who actually cooperated, while the target faces no punishment and receives acclaim in Venezuela," one of Contreras' attorneys, Martin Steinberg, said in arguing for an even lighter sentence of house arrest.

Contreras broke down in tears as he recounted two gruelling kidnapping episodes in Venezuela in which he said he was beaten and suffered sexual abuse — wounds he said would be reopened if he were locked away.

"I live every day afraid that it could happen to me again," he told the judge.

However, Ruiz said at least some prison time was warranted to deter others from participating in such sophisticated foreign corruption schemes.

Attorneys for Contreras described his cooperation as "extraordinary," spanning more than four years and involving DEA-directed phone calls to targets and at least two risky trips to Venezuela to advance US criminal investigations.

However, the full extent of his cooperation is unknown, as both prosecutors' account and a 76-page sentencing memorandum filed by Contreras' attorneys remain under seal.

"It's fair to say the corroborating information he provided was very useful," federal prosecutor Alexander Kramer said Friday in court. "He travelled to Venezuela to try and cooperate of his own volition. It was not requested by the government."

(This story has not been edited by Devdiscourse staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

Give Feedback