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Miami Businessman Pleads Guilty to Bribery

HOUSTON (CN) - A Miami businessman pleaded guilty to bribing employees of Venezuela's state oil company for equipment supply contracts, the Justice Department said.

Federal agents arrested Abraham Jose Shiera-Bastidas, 52, of Coral Gables, Fla. on Dec. 16, 2015. That same day they arrested his alleged co-conspirator Roberto Enrique Rincon-Fernandez, 55, in Houston.

Rincon-Fernandez is president of Tradequip Services & Marine, an oil equipment manufacturer based in The Woodlands, a Houston suburb.

Phone calls to Tradequip got a busy signal.

Shiera-Bastidas pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Gray Miller in Houston on Tuesday to one violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, conspiracy to violate the Act and to commit wire fraud, U.S. Attorney Ken Magidson's office said in a statement.

His sentencing is set for July 8.

The Foreign Corrupt Practices Act violation carries a max penalty of five years in prison and a $100,000 fine. Miller will determine the punishment for the other charges based on an advisory penalty range informed by federal sentencing guidelines.

Shiera-Bastidas admitted that starting in 2009 he and Rincon-Fernandez bribed employees of Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. with cash and "other things of value," allowing their companies to win lucrative contracts from PDVSA, and have their bills prioritized so the oil company paid their businesses before other vendors, prosecutors said.

Three former Petroleos de Venezuela employees pleaded guilty in December 2015 to taking bribes from Shiera-Bastidas and Rincon-Fernandez, and laundering proceeds from the scam, prosecutors said.

Rincon-Fernandez is in federal custody charged with 11 counts including wire fraud, money laundering and violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. His attorney Sam Louis with Strasburger Price in Houston did not immediately respond to a phone message and email on Wednesday, asking whether he will also plead guilty or fight the charges.

"The pleas of guilty in this case are the result of the strict enforcement of the FCPA in this district. Bribery under this law is a serious federal crime that undermines commercial and political relations around the world," Magidson said in a statement.

Venezuela is the most oil-rich country in the world and the fifth-largest crude oil exporter, according to publicly available data.

Venezuela's dependence on oil, which accounts for 95 percent of its export revenue, and the commodity's price drop has plunged the communist-led country economy into a recession. The crisis led the Venezuelan government in February to raise gas prices for the first time in two decades to the equivalent of $0.11 per gallon, Bloomberg reported.

Petroleos de Venezuela owns Citgo, an oil and natural gas producer and gas station operator that's based in Houston.

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