March 23, 2016 / 3:49 PM / in 2 years

Ex-officials at Venezuela's PDVSA pleaded guilty in bribe case: U.S.

The PDVSA logo is seen on a tank at its refinery El Palito in Puerto Cabello, in the state of Carabobo, March 2, 2016. REUTERS/Marco Bello

(Reuters) - Three former officials at Venezuela’s state oil company have pleaded guilty to U.S. charges related to a scheme by two businessmen to corruptly secure energy contracts, the U.S. Justice Department said on Wednesday.

The former officials at Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA) pleaded guilty under seal in December to conspiracy to commit money laundering. Their pleas were unsealed by a federal judge in Houston on Tuesday.

The ex-PDVSA officials are Jose Luis Ramos Castillo, 38; Christian Javier Maldonado Barillas, 39; and Alfonzo Eliezer Gravina Munoz, 53.

The U.S. Justice Department said each has admitted to accepting bribes from two Venezuelan businessmen, Roberto Rincon and Abraham Jose Shiera Bastidas, who were charged in December with violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

Shiera, who lives in Miami and owned multiple U.S.-based energy companies, pleaded guilty on Tuesday. One of his employees, Moises Abraham Millan Escobar, pleaded guilty under seal to a conspiracy charge in January, prosecutors said.

Lawyers for Rincon, president of Tradequip Services & Marine, and Shiera did not respond to requests for comment. Lawyers for the ex-officials could not be immediately identified.

Assistant U.S. Attorney General Leslie Caldwell in a statement called the PDVSA case the “result of a tenacious and coordinated effort by our prosecutors and agents to unravel a complex web of bribes paid to Venezuelan officials.”

The indictment said Rincon, 55, and Shiera, 52, conspired to pay bribes to officials to secure contracts from PDVSA.

It also said five PDVSA officials received hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes made through wire transfers, mortgage payments, airline tickets and, in one case, whiskey.

The bribes also came in the form of more than $14,000 for one company official spent at the upmarket Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami Beach, the indictment said.

From 2009 to 2014 more than $1 billion was traced to the conspiracy, with $750 million to Rincon, a Venezuelan who lives in Texas, according to court documents. Rincon has pleaded not guilty.

According to the Justice Department, Ramos, Maldonado and Gravina, all from Katy, Texas, conspired with Shiera and Rincon to launder the proceeds of the bribery scheme.

PDVSA did not respond to a request for comment. It has previously denounced the case as being part of an international smear campaign.

The case is U.S. v. Rincon-Fernandez, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Texas, No. 15-cr-654.

Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and David Gregorio

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