Three officials at Venezuela's state-run oil company pled guilty in the US for their roles in a kickback scheme reportedly worth an estimated $1 billion, underscoring the scope of corruption in the country and the failures of authorities to confront it.
Court documents unsealed March 22 detail a scheme in which two businessmen paid three former Petroleum of Venezuela, S.A. (PDVSA) officials to ensure that their companies "were placed on PDVSA bidding panels, which enabled the companies to win lucrative energy contracts," according to a US Department of Justice (DOJ) press release. The New York Times reported the scheme was worth $1 billion.
The documents were made public after Florida resident Abraham José Shiera Bastidas pled guilty to three charges, including violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). The three former PDVSA officials, José Luís Ramos Castillo, Christian Javier Maldonado Barillas and Alfonzo Eliézer Gravina Muñoz, all pled guilty in December 2015 to conspiracy to commit money laundering.
In their pleas, the PDVSA officials testified that Shiera Bastidas and his counterpart Roberto Enríque Rincón Fernández, of Texas, gave them bribes and other favors. The documents show that Shiera and Rincon also helped the PDVSA officials launder the money. At least one of the officials had money deposited into a bank account in Panama.
According to the Department of Justice, the charges against Rincón Fernández are still pending.
The Swiss government has also agreed to assist the US government in its investigation. In a statement, Switzerland's Federal Office of Justice said it would provide information to US authorities from at least 18 banks that have done business with PDVSA, Reuters reported.
InSight Crime Analysis
The kickback and bribery scheme sheds further light on corruption within PDVSA. Last March, US Department of the Treasury's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) accused PDVSA officials of laundering $2 billion through the Andorran bank Banca Privada d'Andorra (BPA). An opposition politician recently said corruption at the state-run oil company has cost the Venezuelan people $10 billion.
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Despite the suspected widespread corruption at PDVSA, few officials have been charged or investigated by Venezuelan authorities. Venezuela's inaction contrasts sharply with the vigorous investigations into corruption at Brazil's state-run oil giant Petrobras.
The investigations, known as "Operation Car Wash," have implicated numerous political elites and Petrobras officials, including billionaire businessman Marcelo Odebrecht, who was sentenced earlier this month to 19 years in prison. Former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva was recently detained, and current president Dilma Rousseff is facing increasing pressure to resign over her alleged links to the scandal.
Although the scandal has ignited social unrest in Brazil, it is arguably a sign of the independence and strength of the country's judicial system -- something that is lacking in Venezuela.