Top lawyer for Venezuela’s state oil company sentenced to 3 years for racket tied to Miami

A former general counsel of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company apologized profusely Monday in Miami federal court for accepting more than $11 million in bribes for his supporting role in a government racket that fueled a money-laundering scheme extending from his homeland to South Florida to Europe.

Alvaro Ledo Nass, a lawyer who also served as secretary of PDVSA’s board of directors, was sentenced to three years in prison and ordered to pay back the bribery money to the U.S. government as part of his punishment imposed by U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams. He was also fined $7,500.

The judge called the foreign corruption conspiracy “a cancer that acts like a virus,” but she gave Nass a lighter sentence after both his defense attorney and federal prosecutors said that the defendant provided tremendous assistance in the massive $1.2 billion money laundering case. Since 2018, the case has resulted in money-laundering charges against a dozen defendants, mostly Venezuelan officials and international businessmen with political connections to Caracas government leaders.

Despite his substantial assistance, prosecutor Kurt Lunkenheimer recommended that Nass be sent to prison for eight years — less than the maximum of 10 years. Nass’ defense attorney Oscar Rodriguez described that reduction as “conservative” and argued for much less, noting that his client’s insider evidence helped convict two other defendants and that his life had been threatened. The judge decided to give Nass the lower sentence because she said it would be more consistent with the punishment of other PDVSA officials who cut plea deals in the case.

Nass, who voluntarily began cooperating with U.S. authorities long before he was formally charged in February, told the judge that he had failed the people of his country and the United States, as well as his wife and two daughters, who attended Monday’s hearing.

“I have done everything in my power to correct the wrong I did,” Nass, 42, said while reading a statement in English. Nass, who pleaded guilty in March, remains free on bond and is living with family members in Miami. He must surrender to prison authorities on Jan. 5, 2024, allowing him time to continue helping federal investigators and complete an engineering program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

So far, a dozen foreign and local defendants have been charged in the sprawling foreign corruption case, and five have pleaded guilty in Miami federal court.

Nass is the latest senior Venezuelan official at PDVSA to admit giving access to a ring of political insiders accused of providing massive loans to the national oil company in exchange for inflated payments washed through the government’s lucrative currency exchanges.

A factual statement, signed by Nass, his lawyer and prosecutors, says that between 2012 and 2017 the defendant and others “engaged in various foreign exchange schemes using loan contracts with PDVSA that were unlawfully obtained via bribes and kickbacks.”

The case’s main money-laundering scheme unfolded in late 2014 with a sham loan to PDVSA that was repaid through the government’s bolivar-dollar exchange system, siphoning $600 million from the state-owned oil company’s coffers, according to an indictment and other court documents.

That money was moved offshore to bank accounts in Switzerland and Malta, though the network of co-conspirators used by an associate based in Miami to launder a portion of the PDVSA funds in the United States, according to prosecutors.

By 2015, the conspiracy had doubled to $1.2 billion embezzled from Venezuela’s national oil company, the indictment says. Meanwhile, the associate became a key cooperating source for Homeland Security Investigations within U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, including recording conversations in undercover meetings with some of the co-conspirators.

The HSI informant has not been charged in the Miami case. The accused ringleader is Venezuelan Francisco Convit Guruceaga, who allegedly collaborated with other influential business people to exploit the oil-rich administrations of the late President Hugo Chávez and current President Nicolás Maduro.

Convit’s defense attorney, Adam Kaufmann in New York, has declined to comment while his client remains in Venezuela. Since 2018, federal prosecutors and Homeland Security Investigations have seized hundreds of millions of dollars in bank and real estate assets belonging to the dozen defendants named in the main money-laundering indictment and related cases.