Former Oil Executive Indicted in Bribery Scandal Linked to Venezuela

Traffic on I-95 passes Citgo oil storage tanks in Linden, N.J., on Sept. 8, 2008. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

HOUSTON (CN) — A former Citgo executive received bribe payments of $2.5 million, World Series and Super Bowl tickets from two business partners who have pleaded guilty for their roles in the scam, federal prosecutors claim in an indictment unsealed Thursday.

A federal grand jury charged Jose Luis De Jongh-Atencio, a 48-year-old dual U.S.-Venezuelan citizen, with five counts of money laundering and conspiracy to launder money while serving as a procurement officer from 2013 into 2019 for Citgo, the Houston-based subsidiary of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company Petróleos de Venezuela S.A.

“With the unsealing of the indictment today, the Justice Department has announced charges against 27 individuals, 20 of whom have pleaded guilty, as part of a larger, ongoing investigation by the U.S. government into bribery at PDVSA,” Houston U.S. Attorney Ryan Patrick’s office said in a statement.

Prosecutors say De Jongh-Atencio took bribes from Jose Manuel González-Testino, a dual U.S.-Venezuelan citizen, and his business partner Tulio Anibal Farias-Perez, a Venezuelan national and Houston resident, in return for helping their companies obtain contracts with Citgo and PDSVA.

De Jongh-Atencio, prosecutors claim, had González-Testino and Farias-Perez make bribe payments to shell company bank accounts in Panama and Switzerland, then laundered the funds through U.S. bank accounts and spent most of it on real estate in South Texas.

“De Jongh also allegedly received gifts and other things of value from Gonzalez, Farias and others including tickets to a 2014 World Series Game, Super Bowl XLIX and a U2 concert,” prosecutors said in a statement.

Prosecutors in Houston, Miami and Washington have been aggressively pursuing charges in the probe since January 2019 when the U.S. government placed sanctions on PDVSA and its subsidiaries and backed Venezuela opposition leader Juan Guaidó’s challenge of Nicolás Maduro’s presidency.

The sanctions are meant to stop Maduro’s socialist government from receiving proceeds from PDSVA’s sale of oil in the United States. They are being held in an account Maduro’s regime is blocked from accessing.

Backed by Venezuela’s National Assembly, its version of Congress, Guaidó declared himself acting president of Venezuela in January 2019.

With the National Assembly’s blessing, Guaidó appointed new board members for PDVSA and Citgo in early 2019, prompting the U.S. Treasury Department to renew Citgo’s license to operate in the United States, where it owns three refineries in Illinois, Texas and Louisiana and pipelines extending into 23 states.

Attorneys for the new Citgo board are reportedly going through its internal documents and turning over evidence of fraud to federal prosecutors.

Prosecutors announced De Jongh-Atencio’s charges shortly after U.S. Senator Ted Cruz, R-Texas asked Elliott Abrams, U.S. Special Representative for Venezuela, in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Thursday how Congress can help remove Maduro from power.

Abrams urged Congress to issue a resolution stating the U.S. will not stop pressuring Maduro to step down.

“I actually think the best thing we could do would be a bipartisan expression that this policy is not going to change,” Abrams said. “It has support in both parties. We are not going to let up on the sanctions. We are not going to let up on the criminal prosecutions. We’re going to stay with it, so this is going to keep on going year-after-year until this regime is replaced.”

Cruz also asked Abrams about the “Citgo 6,” five U.S. citizens and a permanent resident who are executives of the company and have been detained by Maduro’s regime since they traveled to Venezuela in November 2017.

They are facing corruption charges in Venezuela over a proposal to refinance $4 billion in Citgo bonds, the Associated Press reported.

Two of the men were reportedly moved to house arrest last week.

Abrams said the U.S. is working to free the men with the governments of Mexico, Spain, Argentina and the Vatican.

“We hope that the next step is the other four go to house arrest as a step toward getting home. It’s been since 2017. It’s gone on for two and a half years now and they belong home with their families. These men have never had a trial,” Abrams told the foreign relations committee.

At Jongh-Atencio’s arraignment in federal court in Houston Thursday, U.S. Magistrate Judge Sam Sheldon set his bond at $2 million.

His attorneys told Sheldon a surety will sign the bond Monday to get him released from custody until his trial, which is set for Sept. 28.

González-Testino pleaded guilty in May 2019 to violating and conspiring to violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and failing to report foreign bank accounts.

Farias-Perez meanwhile pleaded guilty to conspiracy in February.

They are both scheduled to be sentenced Feb. 24, 2021.

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