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Light sentences in 2 US cases targeting graft in Venezuela

May 23, 2022 GMT

MIAMI (AP) — Two U.S. criminal cases targeting Venezuela’s government ended Monday in a four-year prison sentence for a Miami businessman who serviced the country’s Russian fighter jets and a light sentence for another individual who implicated a fierce opponent of President Nicolas Maduro in corrupt dealings.

Jorge Nobrega in federal court apologized profusely for his decision to provide services to Venezuela’s air force in violation of U.S. sanctions imposed in January 2019 seeking to force Maduro’s removal.

“Sometimes I find myself paralyzed by how my life has plunged as a result of my terrible decision,” a visibly shaken Nobrega said during the sentencing hearing. “I am ashamed of myself. Instead of giving my family happiness and joy, I am giving them pain, suffering, disgrace and humiliation.”

Judge Paul Huck appeared persuaded by Nobrega’s show of remorse, handing down a 48- month sentence, below the 57 months sought by Assistant U.S. Attorney Kurt Lunkenheimer.

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Nobrega’s Florida-registered company, Achabal Technologies, was owed money from Venezuela for work it had carried out before the U.S. imposed sanctions on the socialist government.

But instead of seeking a license from the Treasury Department to collect for the unpaid work, as required, the dual Venezuelan-American national agreed to a payment schedule that required him to supply new services for the military’s fleet of Sukhoi fighter jets.

As part of the plan, he opened a bank account in Portugal, where he received $3.5 million from Tipco, a publicly traded Thai asphalt company that had been helping Venezuela’s state-run oil company PDVSA, a longtime supplier, violate the sanctions.

In the other case, Venezuelan businessman Carlos Urbano Fermin was sentenced to five years’ probation for paying bribes to top officials in the South American country.

Fermin, in pleading guilty last year, admitted to paying around $1 million in bribes to a “high-ranking prosecutor” in Venezuela as “insurance” against any investigations into his construction company’s extensive dealings with PDVSA.

The prosecutor, who was not identified in court documents, is former Venezuelan Attorney General Luisa Ortega, The Associated Press reported last year.

“I never dreamed that I would find myself in this situation,” Fermin said at his sentencing, saying he was forced to make an impossible choice of paying bribes or having his business of 1,500 employees destroyed or seized.

He also thanked the U.S. government for providing a safe haven that has allowed him to avoid the fate of his brother, who has been jailed in Venezuela since 2017 on what he considers trumped-up charges.

“We have become a stronghold to dismantle what is happening in Venezuela,” Urbano Fermin told Judge Robert Scola, who took the unusual step of sealing normally open courtroom proceedings at which details of the defendant’s cooperation were discussed. “A system that has been damaged and taken hold of by politicians.”

Ortega, the former attorney general, has not been charged but previously has said the bribery allegations were a baseless attempt by Maduro’s government to coerce a confession from Urbano Fermin’s jailed brother and tarnish her reputation.

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Ortega, a longtime admirer of the late Hugo Chávez, broke with Venezuela’s socialist leadership in 2017 over what she called the country’s descent into dictatorship under Maduro.

For her outspoken views, she was removed as attorney general and promptly fled to neighboring Colombia, where she and a team of exiled prosecutors sharpened their attacks on corruption back home as well as provided evidence to the International Criminal Court of human rights abuses allegedly committed by Maduro’s government.

But she could never fully shake her reputation as a loyalist who served for a decade as the chief judicial enforcer of what Chavez called his Bolivarian revolution.

She has since relocated to Spain as the U.S. criminal investigation into corruption inside Venezuela’s judiciary has advanced.

According to a three-page, heavily redacted factual filing accompanying his plea last year, Fermin said that between 2012 and 2016, his companies obtained numerous large contracts from three PDVSA joint ventures with foreign oil companies — among them China National Petroleum Company, Russia’s Rosneft and France’s Total SA.

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In early 2017, Ortega’s office had an investigation into the awarding of those contracts. Around the same time, Fermin said, he was approached by a lawyer in Venezuelaclose to the high-ranking prosecutor, who was unnamed in the documents, with the promise that he could quash any criminal probe.

Describing himself as an “insurance policy,” the intermediary “advised the defendant that he had the ability to prevent criminal charges,” according to the court filing.

Afterward, Fermin said, he wired approximately $1 million from the U.S. to accounts for the benefit of the prosecutor.

The Venezuelan government never brought any charges against Fermin’s companies while Ortega was chief prosecutor. Her successor, Tarek William Saab, charged Fermin and his two brothers shortly after taking the post in 2017.

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Joshua Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman