Son-in-law of top opponent of the Venezuelan president pleads guilty to US money laundering charges

MIAMI– The son-in-law of a prominent Venezuelan opposition leader has pleaded guilty to money laundering for his role in a massive bribery conspiracy to siphon $1.2 billion from the state oil company.

As part of his plea deal announced Tuesday in federal court in Miami, Fernando Vuteff admitted that he made at least $4.1 million from a Spanish real estate company and that financial institutions in Europe and Malta laundered money on behalf of several Venezuelan insiders government.

Brian H. Bieber, a lawyer for Vuteff, told The Associated Press that his client “accepted full responsibility for his conduct and the role he played in this case” but declined to comment further.

The Argentina-born asset manager is most recently embroiled in a multi-year investigation known as Operation Money Flight, which focuses on corruption within Venezuela's oil industry, the source of virtually all of the OPEC country's export revenue.

From 2006 until about 2018, Vuteff, the son-in-law of former Caracas mayor Antonio Ledezma, worked with a Swiss banker to solicit wealthy South American clients for offshore accounts in European banks. Among their clients was Raul Gorrin, a powerful media mogul described in the settlement as a “billionaire businessman who owned a Venezuelan television network.”

Gorrin was charged separately in 2018 for his role in the alleged conspiracy. According to investigators, the conspirators set up a currency exchange scheme using bogus loan agreements with oil giant PDVSA, intended to embezzle between $600 million and $1.2 billion at a time of collapsing production levels.

To facilitate dirty deal-making, the conspirators paid millions in bribes, including to relatives of an unnamed official identified in Vuteff's plea deal as “Los Chamos” – Venezuelan slang for “the children.” The “Chamos” are the stepsons of President Nicolas Maduro, two Americans previously told the AP, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the allegations.

Vuteff put his personal proceeds from the conspiracy into real estate in Miami, Madrid and the capital of Paraguay, as well as into a bank account of a shell company in the Caribbean island of Turks and Caicos, according to the plea agreement.

Corruption is widespread in Venezuela — the country trails only Somalia in a widely cited ranking of 180 countries for perceived levels of corruption — and U.S. prosecutors have uncovered billions in fraud and kickbacks at PDVSA in recent years.

But the Miami investigation — the largest ever money laundering case against Venezuelan officials and their associates — has slowed recently as several key prosecutors have resigned, the Justice Department has turned its attention to national security investigations in China and Russia, and the Biden administration has tried to persuade Maduro to allow free and fair elections.

Vuteff's father-in-law, Ledezma, was one of Maduro's fiercest opponents for years, leading massive protests against the self-styled socialist leader before he was arrested in 2015 on charges that he was plotting a coup. He escaped house arrest in 2017 and settled in Spain.

Ledezma said in a statement that he focused on providing support to his daughter and grandchildren and did not comment on Vuteff's crimes.

“I do not interfere in a process that depends on the judicial administration of a democratic country, whose rulings must be respected,” he said.

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