US businessman pleads guilty in connection with Venezuela bribery scheme

HOUSTON, USA — The owner of multiple US-based energy companies pleaded guilty on Tuesday to foreign bribery and fraud charges for his role in a scheme to corruptly secure energy contracts from Venezuela’s state-owned and state-controlled energy company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA).

Abraham Jose Shiera Bastidas (Shiera), 52, of Coral Gables, Florida, pleaded guilty on Tuesday in federal court before US District doj_logoJudge Gray H. Miller of the Southern District of Texas in Houston to one count of conspiracy to violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) and commit wire fraud and one count of violating the FCPA. Sentencing is scheduled for July 8, 2016. Four others charged in relation to the case have pleaded guilty, including three foreign officials.

“The five convictions announced today hold to account bribe payors as well as the corrupt foreign officials who laundered the bribe money through the United States,” said Assistant Attorney General Leslie R. Caldwell. “These individual prosecutions are the result of a tenacious and coordinated effort by our prosecutors and agents to unravel a complex web of bribes paid to Venezuelan officials. And they demonstrate our commitment to building cases from the ground up, instead of counting on companies and other wrongdoers to self-disclose their crimes.”

“The pleas of guilty in this case are the result of the strict enforcement of the FCPA in this district,” said US Attorney Kenneth Magidson. “Bribery under this law is a serious federal crime that undermines commercial and political relations around the world. This case is an example of our reach to expose this criminal conduct.”

Shiera was arrested in Miami on December 16, 2015, after a federal grand jury returned an 18-count indictment against him and Roberto Enrique Rincon Fernandez (Rincon), 55, of The Woodlands, Texas. According to admissions made in connection with Shiera’s plea, Shiera and Rincon worked together to submit bids to provide equipment and services to PDVSA through their various companies.

Shiera admitted that beginning in 2009, he and Rincon agreed to pay bribes and other things of value to PDVSA purchasing analysts to ensure that his and Rincon’s companies were placed on PDVSA bidding panels, which enabled the companies to win lucrative energy contracts with PDVSA.

Shiera also made bribe payments to other PDVSA officials in order to ensure that his companies were placed on PDVSA-approved vendor lists and given payment priority so that they would get paid ahead of other PDVSA vendors with outstanding invoices, he admitted.

“The corruption of foreign officials through bribery has a damaging impact on the stability of trade, industries and even nations,” said Acting Special Agent in Charge Sean McElroy of US Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s Homeland Security Investigations (ICE-HSI) in Houston. “HSI and our partners will tirelessly investigate anyone who cultivates the corruption of officials abroad and bribe their way to financial gain.”

“Bribery and corruption undermines honest, free enterprise and creates an atmosphere of back room dealing that impairs the ability for honest businesses to compete,” said Special Agent in Charge Rick Goss of Internal Revenue Service-Criminal Investigation’s (IRS-CI) Houston Field Office. “IRS-CI tirelessly untangles the web of ‎illicit transactions that lead to corrupt individuals being held accountable.”

Judge Miller also unsealed charges yesterday against four other individuals charged in connection with the investigation. In January 2016, Moises Abraham Millan Escobar (Millan), 32, of Katy, Texas, pleaded guilty under seal to one count of conspiracy to violate the FCPA for his role in the PDVSA bribery scheme. Millan was Shiera’s former employee.

In December 2015, three former PDVSA officials, Jose Luis Ramos Castillo (Ramos), 38; Christian Javier Maldonado Barillas (Maldonado), 39; and Alfonzo Eliezer Gravina Munoz (Gravina), 53, all from Katy, each pleaded guilty under seal to conspiracy to commit money laundering. As part of their guilty pleas, Ramos, Maldonado and Gravina each admitted that while employed by PDVSA or its wholly owned subsidiaries or affiliates, they accepted bribes from Shiera and Rincon in exchange for taking certain actions to assist companies owned by Shiera and Rincon in winning energy contracts with PDVSA.

Ramos, Maldonado and Gravina also admitted that they conspired with Shiera and Rincon to launder the proceeds of the bribery scheme. Gravina also pleaded guilty to making false statements on his 2010 federal income tax return by failing to report the bribe payments he received from Shiera, Rincon and others. As part of their plea agreements, Shiera, Millan, Ramos, Maldonado and Gravina all agreed to forfeit proceeds of their criminal activity.

The charges against Rincon remain pending. He is charged with one count of conspiracy to violate the FCPA and commit wire fraud, one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering, seven counts of money laundering and four counts of violating the FCPA. Rincon was ordered detained pending trial following a detention hearing held on December 18, 2015, before US Magistrate Judge Nancy K. Johnson of the Southern District of Texas. The charges contained in the indictment are merely accusations, and Rincon is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

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