Guilty in $1 billion PDVSA bribery scheme
HOUSTON - A Venezuelan businessman pleaded guilty to bribing officials of Venezuela’s national oil company to steer about $1 billion in energy-supply contracts amid the country’s now-faded oil boom to himself and a partner in the U.S.
Roberto Enrique Rincon Fernandez, a Venezuelan citizen who lived in Texas, admitted his role in the bribery scheme as part of a plea deal that reduced his potential prison term to 13 years. He previously faced a possible sentence of more than 100 years, according to court papers.
Rincon’s plea is the latest turn in the Justice Department’s wide-ranging investigation of allegations of corruption in Venezuela. The country remains South America’s largest oil exporter as it faces triple-digit inflation and an economy predicted to contract for the third consecutive year amid food riots and a push to recall President Nicolas Maduro. The scheme began amid the nation’s boom years under socialist President Hugo Chavez and continued after his death in 2013, when Maduro took over.
Rincon, 55, has been in U.S. custody since he and a Miami colleague were arrested in December on suspicion of bribing officials of Petroleos de Venezuela SA, or PDVSA, from 2009 through 2014. Rincon and Abraham Jose Shiera Bastidas were charged with paying millions of dollars in bribes to three PDVSA officials to rig the bidding process in their favor. Federal agents have traced at least $750 million of the scheme’s proceeds to Rincon-controlled companies.
He appeared in court Thursday shackled at the wrists and ankles, accompanied by guards.
Addressing the judge throughout as “Senor,” Rincon calmly answered each of the judge’s questions through a translator, saying he was more comfortable speaking in Spanish.
U.S. District Judge Gray Miller explained he’s free to impose any sentence he chooses, after reviewing the guidelines, facts and recommendations. “You’re stuck with that whether you like it or not,” the judge told him.
“Si, Senor,” Rincon replied.
The businessman is looking forward to closing the chapter on this episode and “rehabilitating his business reputation,” Rincon’s lawyer, Sam Louis, said in an interview after the hearing. Rincon is scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 30.
Prosecutors declined to comment on the status of the probe into corruption at PDVSA.
PDVSA officials didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment on the plea or the probe.
Rincon lived in Houston for about 10 years, first as a legal permanent U.S. resident and more recently on a B1/B2 visa, according to court and public records. He owns a 15,000-square-foot mansion valued at $5.8 million in the Woodlands, a wealthy suburb north of the city. Along with seizing his 2013 Ferrari Four and a 2010 Lamborghini Gallardo Balboni, federal agents have identified three Swiss bank accounts totaling more than $100 million controlled by Rincon, his family and his companies.
Rincon was detained as a flight risk by a U.S. magistrate who said his access to cash overseas, his private jet and homes in Spain and Aruba provided “the means to flee anywhere and support himself for the rest of his life.” The detention order described Rincon as a close friend of Hugo Carvajal, a retired Venezuelan military intelligence chief accused of drug trafficking by the U.S.
Rincon had been set to go on trial before a federal jury in Houston next week.
Shiera, Rincon’s co-conspirator in Miami, pleaded guilty to his role in the PDVSA bribery scheme in March and is to be sentenced next month in Houston. Three Venezuelan officials who were living in suburban Houston during the conspiracy also pleaded guilty and are free on bail until their sentencing in September. One of Shiera’s employees has also pleaded guilty to the scheme and is awaiting sentencing.
The case is U.S. v. Rincon-Fernandez, 15-cr-00654, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Texas (Houston)