MIAMI -- The former general counsel for Venezuela’s state-owned oil company pleaded guilty in Miami federal court on money laundering charges Wednesday in connection to a conspiracy to siphon at least $550 million from state coffers through corrupt currency deals.
As part of his plea agreement, Alvaro Ledo Nass acknowledged taking $11.5 million in bribes between 2012 and 2017, a period largely overlapping with his senior roles at Petroleos de Venezuela SA, or PDVSA.
“I knew what I did,” Nass said in proceedings before Judge Patricia Seitz, expressing remorse for his actions. “I came here to own up to my mistakes and to take responsibility before the U.S. courts.”
Nass, 43, in February became the latest among several dozen former Venezuelan officials to be charged or convicted in the U.S. as part of Operation Money Flight, a sprawling, multi-year investigation that seeks to untangle how Venezuelan insiders stole billions in oil wealth from their country.
Many of the individuals involved in the massive graft scheme either relocated or plowed their stolen wealth into real estate in south Florida.
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro this month ordered a crackdown on corruption inside PDVSA that has led to a number of arrests of top officials and businessmen accused of stealing oil shipments. The allegations prompted the resignation of the country’s oil czar, Tareck El Aissami, a key figure in the government’s efforts to evade U.S. oil sanctions.
Nass' crimes predate the latest purge but are nonetheless symptomatic of the same graft that experts say has proliferated through Venezuela's state-run oil industry during more than two decades of socialist rule.
As part of his plea deal, Nass admitted to taking bribes in exchange for greenlighting a bogus currency transaction in 2014 by which several businessmen agreed to loan PDVSA 7.2 billion bolivars, or $50 million at the widely used black market exchange rate in Venezuela. The oil company then settled the debt for the Euro equivalent of $600 million a few months later at an artificially high official exchange rate, allowing the insiders to turn a huge profit of $550 million, according to a six-page factual proffer accompanying Nass' plea agreement.
Among those he admitted to meeting with in Madrid to discuss ways to hide profits from the embezzlement scheme was Luis Fernando Vuteff, a financial manager who is the son-in-law of Caracas’ former mayor, exiled opposition leader Antonio Ledezma.
Vuteff was arrested and extradited from Spain last year to the U.S. and is awaiting trial on money laundering charges.
Proceeds from the dirty deal were laundered through financial institutions in Spain, the Bahamas and New Jersey,
Assistant U.S. Attorney Kurt Lunkenheimer and Justice Department trial attorney Paul Hayden are overseeing the case, which started when Nass, who had been living in Spain, came to the U.S. to cooperate with the law enforcement investigation.
Nass, as secretary of PDVSA's board of directors and then general counsel, was able to influence decisions inside the oil giant.
Nass' parents said they were devastated.
“We trust he will get through this sad period and overcome the mistakes that have so affected him and our family,” his parents said in a statement through Caracas-based attorney Jesus Loreto.
Associated Press writer Regina Garcia Cano in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.
Joshua Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman