Venezuela bribery witness gets lighter sentence after Biden pardons Maduro aide


MIAMI (AP) — A Venezuelan businessman who helped hide nearly $17 million in bribe payments from an associate of President Nicolas Maduro was sentenced to six months in prison Friday by a federal judge who But expressed disappointment that his cooperation with law enforcement was revoked by President Joe. Biden’s recent pardon of a top US criminal target.

Orlando Contreras had been working with the US Drug Enforcement Administration since 2019 to investigate corruption in the South American nation.

As part of that assistance, prosecutors said, he made several dangerous trips to Venezuela to gather evidence against businessman Alex Saab and former governor Jose Villama.

Both Saab and Wilma were targeted by a secret spy program Exposed by the Associated Press In which the DEA sent secret informants into Venezuela to secretly record and bring criminal charges against Maduro’s inner circle.

Both men were later convicted in separate corruption cases. But while Wilma remains a fugitive, the U.S. Saab was freed In December as part of the swap of 10 Americans and a Pentagon defense contractor who were imprisoned in Venezuela.

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U.S. District Court Judge Rodolfo Ruiz said he was persuaded to give Contreras more leniency than the government recommended because of the risks he took in pursuing Saab — once a top criminal defendant but now stranded in Venezuela. The man is unlikely to ever face justice again in America.

“Everyone left town, and he’s the only one who decided to stay and face justice,” Ruiz said.

Saab was 52 years old welcomed home as a hero Maduro immediately launched a tirade against the US in December, claiming he had been tortured to turn him against Maduro while awaiting extradition from Cape Verde.

His release was seen as a major concession to Maduro as the Biden administration seeks to improve ties with the OPEC nation and pave the way for free elections. That goal appears more elusive than ever as Maduro has refused to lift the ban on his main rival, María Corina Machado, from seeking public office. newly arrested opponents,

Contreras pleaded guilty last year to bribery in 2016 and 2019 to pay bribes in exchange for $1.6 billion in government contracts awarded to Saab and an associate to import boxes of medicine and food during a time of widespread famine. Beach received approximately $17 million. Country. As part of the alleged scheme, the co-conspirators inflated the prices of basic goods charged to the Venezuelan government, using the excess funds to bribe officials.

Contreras said he acted as Wilma’s intermediary and transferred approximately $11 million to offshore accounts at the direction of the then-governor. He kept the remaining amount with himself but now he is surrendering that amount to the US government. To date, he has handed over $650,000, two luxury watches and is pursuing a $100,000 settlement, his lawyers said in court Friday.

Martin Steinberg, one of Contreras’ lawyers, argued in favor of an even lighter sentence of house arrest, saying, “The government wants to punish one of the few people who actually cooperated, while not punishing the target. and is appreciated in Venezuela.”

Contreras began to cry as she recounted two gruesome kidnapping incidents in Venezuela in which she said she was beaten and subjected to sexual abuse – wounds she said would reopen if they were closed.

“I live every day in fear that this could happen to me again,” he told the judge.

However, Ruiz said at least some prison sentence is necessary to deter others from participating in such sophisticated foreign corruption schemes.

Contreras’s lawyers described his cooperation as “extraordinary”, which lasted more than four years and included DEA-directed phone calls to targets and at least two risky trips to Venezuela to further the US criminal investigation.

However, the full extent of their cooperation is unknown, as both prosecutors’ accounts and the 76-page sentencing memorandum filed by Contreras’ lawyers are under seal.

“It’s fair to say that the corroborating information he provided was very useful,” federal prosecutor Alexander Kramer said in court Friday. “He traveled to Venezuela of his own free will to try and cooperate. “It was not requested by the government.”

Copyright 2024 The associated Press, All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.


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