Venezuelan businessman given probation in top bribery case

A bribe-paying Venezuelan businessman has been sentenced to five years’ probation in the United States in recognition of his efforts to expose rampant corruption in that country’s judiciary

ByJoshua Goodman Associated Press
May 23, 2022, 11:02 AM

MIAMI -- A bribe-paying Venezuelan businessman whose criminal case implicates a prominent opponent of President Nicolás Maduro was sentenced Monday to five years’ probation in recognition of his efforts to expose rampant corruption in the country’s judiciary.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Berger had sought a reduced sentence of nearly two years imprisonment for Carlos Urbano Fermin in recognition of his “significant assistance.”

But Judge Robert Scola handed down an even lighter sentence, siding with Fermin’s attorneys, who argued he should receive treatment similar to that of a cooperating defendant in another Venezuelan bribery case.

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 state-run oil giant PDVSA.

The unnamed Venezuelan prosecutor is Venezuela’s former Attorney General Luisa Ortega, The Associated Press reported last year. Ortega has not been charged but previously has said the bribery allegations were a baseless attempt by Maduro’s government to coerce a confession and tarnish her reputation.

“I never dreamed that I would find myself in this situation,” Fermin said in Monday’s sentencing, describing how 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 a fate to that 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 Scola, who took the unusual step of sealing normally open courtroom proceedings where details of the defendant's cooperation were discussed. “A system that has been damaged and taken hold of by politicians.”

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.

Allies of opposition leader Juan Guaidó rallied to her defense, calling her Venezuela’s “legitimate” chief prosecutor and seeking to leverage her defection to build a broader, anti-Maduro coalition.

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.

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

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 unnamed Venezuelan official, including a $100,000 payment to a bank in the Miami suburb of Coral Gables.

The Venezuelan government never brought any charges against Fermin’s companies while Ortega was chief prosecutor although her Maduro-appointed successor, Tarek William Saab, did shortly after taking over in 2017, when he charged Fermin and his two brothers.

———

Joshua Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events