A former top lawyer in Venezuela’s oil ministry who has been helping U.S. authorities drill deeper into a $1.2 billion money laundering case fueled by government corruption pleaded guilty in Miami federal court Wednesday almost one year after he surrendered.
Carmelo Urdaneta Aqui, the former legal counsel to Venezuela’s Ministry of Oil and Mining who had sneaked across the border with Colombia en route to Miami, is the fourth defendant to plead guilty in the massive case. Five other defendants remain fugitives.
Urdaneta was accused of accepting tens of millions in bribes along with other officials in the state-owned oil company known as PDVSA from wealthy business people who in turn made highly profitable loan deals with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s government .
Urdaneta, 47, who has been free on a $1.5 million bond since surrendering, faces up to 10 years in prison but might receive less punishment at his sentencing in September before U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams because of his cooperation. As part of his guilty plea to a single money-laundering conspiracy charge, federal prosecutors are seizing a $5.3 million condo in the Porsche Design Tower in Sunny Isles Beach, along with two apartments in Miami Beach and all assets in Urdaneta’s Swiss bank account.
In total, U.S. authorities have moved to take more than $49 million from Urdaneta that is traceable to his criminal activity of accepting bribes in exchange for providing access to lucrative Venezuelan government contracts such as business loans and currency trades, prosecutors Kurt Lunkenheimer and Paul Hayden said in court papers.
Urdaneta, who held various positions in the Venezuelan Ministry of Oil from 1997 to 2015, was not only a central government player in the $1.2 billion money laundering case filed in Miami but also had a supporting part in another loan and currency scheme earlier in his career, according to a factual statement filed with his plea deal.
The case’s main money-laundering conspiracy began in late 2014 with a sham loan to PDVSA that was repaid through a government currency-exchange scheme — siphoning $600 million from the state-owned oil company’s coffers, according to a criminal complaint. The defendants used an associate to launder a portion of the PDVSA funds in the United States. By 2015, the conspiracy had doubled to $1.2 billion embezzled from Venezuela’s national oil company.
The alleged ringleader was Venezuelan Francisco Convit Guruceaga, who is accused of plotting with Urdaneta, other officials at PDVSA and influential business people with access to the highest levels of government.
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 moved to freeze hundreds of millions of dollars in bank and real estate assets belonging to the nine defendants named in the Miami money-laundering indictment and a related case.
The first was Venezuelan banker Matthias Krull, who pleaded guilty to conspiring to launder some of the PDVSA money secreted away in European bank accounts. He paid $600,000 to satisfy a forfeiture judgment and started his three and a half year sentence earlier this month.
In May of this year, Abraham Edgardo Ortega, a former executive director of financial planning at PDVSA, was sentenced to two years and four months after he admitted accepting more than $12 million in bribes that were secretly wired to U.S. and other financial institutions.
Ortega, who served as PDVSA’s top financial officer from 2014 to 2016, admitted that he conspired with the leader of the money-laundering ring, Guruceaga.
Ortega also said he collaborated with a Miami-based investment broker, Gustavo Adolfo Hernandez Frieri. Hernandez pleaded guilty to accepting $12 million from Ortega to invest in fake mutual funds in the United States so that the transactions looked legitimate, prosecutors said. Hernandez was sentenced to nearly four years.
Ortega and Hernandez each face $12 million forfeiture orders, but court records reflect that the former PDVSA official only kept $3 million of that amount and Hernandez kept the rest. Prosecutors are targeting Hernandez’s New York City residence and a Miami home as substitute assets for his forfeiture order.
Some of the so-called Venezuelan kleptocrats charged in the indictment with Ortega and Hernandez have connections with Venezuelan President Maduro, who is a suspect in the ongoing investigation, according to federal law enforcement sources familiar with the case.
Maduro’s three stepsons are also under investigation, along with a wealthy Caracas TV mogul, Raúl Gorrín, who was charged in a separate money laundering case in Miami and remains in Venezuela