Alejandro Andrade, Venezuela’s ex-national treasurer, likely to be released from U.S. prison in spring

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Alejandro Andrade, the former national treasurer of Venezuela, will be getting out of prison in a few months for his principal role in a $1 billion money laundering scheme because of a big sentence break he got for assisting federal prosecutors in Miami who have targeted other notorious Venezuelans suspected of kleptocracy.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Robin Rosenberg reduced his prison sentence to three and a half years from ten years — a steep 65 percent reduction — for his substantial cooperation, according to an amended judgment filed in federal court. Normally, convicted defendants who cooperate as government witnesses for the U.S. Attorney’s Office receive a 33 percent sentence reduction.

Since he started his prison term at the end of February 2019, Andrade could be released next March because typically federal inmates serve only 85 percent of their sentence if they maintain good behavior while in custody. He has been serving his sentence at the Federal Detention Center in Miami, according to court papers.

Andrade pleaded guilty in late 2017 to selling access to the Venezuelan government’s lucrative foreign-currency exchanges, enriching himself and an elite circle of other senior officials and a prominent businessman before and after President Hugo Chávez’s death in 2013, according to court records. Andrade, whose case was initially under seal to protect him against potential threats, was sentenced in late 2018 and surrendered to authorities a few months later.

Andrade, who had once served as a bodyguard for Chávez, was the national treasurer from 2007 to early 2011. The U.S. Attorney’s Office says Andrade conspired with three other key players in the money-laundering ring, including Caracas TV network mogul Raúl Gorrín, by giving them access to Venezuelan government bonds and its favorable dollar-to-bolivar currency exchange.

Prosecutors said the scheme generated about $2.4 billion in illicit profits for Andrade’s three co-conspirators, and they agreed to share half of their money with Andrade while keeping it in European and U.S. banks. However, Andrade’s defense attorneys, Curtis Miner and Bob Martinez, challenged the government’s assessment, saying the co-conspirators controlled the bank accounts and that their client actually received about $70 million in bribes — not $1 billion.

But since his sentencing in late 2018, federal agents with Homeland Security Investigations have seized about $250 million from Andrade. The funds have been kept by the U.S. government.

In addition to Swiss bank funds turned over by Andrade, HSI agents also seized his equestrian farm in the exclusive Wellington area of Palm Beach County, 14 prized show-jumping horses, and a fleet of luxury cars, such as a 2015 Bentley Continental Convertible. The horses, with names like Bonjovi, Hardrock Z and Tinker Bell, were imported from various parts of Europe, court records show.

As part of his plea agreement, Andrade assisted former prosecutor Michael Nadler and current prosecutors Kurt Lunkenheimer and Vanessa Snyder in building the sprawling case against some of Venezuela’s richest people. Among them: Gorrín, who was indicted in late 2018 but remains a fugitive in Venezuela.

An indictment charges Gorrín, a politically connected Caracas businessman, with conspiring to bribe Venezuelan officials and commit money laundering by hiding embezzled government funds in South Florida and New York real estate over the past decade. The international money-laundering scheme allegedly led by Gorrín transpired over a period of extreme economic hardship for everyday Venezuelans.

Oil rich and once wealthy, Venezuela is staggering under an economic collapse that has led to hyperinflation and food and medicine shortages. More than five million people have fled the country in recent years, according to published reports.

Gorrín is accused of paying bribes to Andrade and another top official in the national treasury office — Andrade’s successor, Claudia Diaz, who is facing extradition from Spain to the U.S. — by funneling the money to them through a Venezuelan banker in the Dominican Republic. Diaz’s husband, who served as an aide to Chávez, is also accused of receiving payoffs.

The Venezuelan banker, Gabriel Arturo Jimenez Aray, controlled Banco Peravia, which was set up in the Dominican Republic by Gorrín to launder money stolen from the Venezuelan government, according to federal prosecutors. Jimenez pleaded guilty and was sentenced to three years in prison.

The alleged bribery network capitalized on the highly lucrative “permuta” market, where dollar-denominated bonds were purchased in bolivars and oftentimes sold abroad in dollars. These instruments became a useful source of hard currency for multinationals and large Venezuelan companies finding it difficult to exchange their bolivars for dollars inside Venezuela. The permuta market, however, also became an ideal money-laundering instrument, according to U.S. investigators, allowing kleptocrats and drug traffickers to clean their dirty dollars by selling them for bolivars in the Venezuelan black market and then using those bolivars to purchase government-issued bonds that could later be swapped for clean dollars.

Since targeting Venezuelan corruption in 2017, South Florida federal authorities have seized about $500 million in bank accounts that belonged to more than a dozen government officials and business people in Venezuela, all charged with laundering billions of dollars into the United States, Switzerland and other countries.

Federal agents have also seized dozens of multimillion-dollar condos and homes — stretching from downtown Miami’s Brickell Avenue area to the exclusive Cocoplum neighborhood in Coral Gables — from other Venezuelan defendants accused of bribery and kickback schemes fueled by the nation’s oil company, PDVSA, under the socialist regimes of Chávez and his successor, Nicolás Maduro.

Maduro, who took over as Venezuela’s president in 2013, was charged in a drug-trafficking conspiracy case along with other former Venezuelan government officials last year in New York federal court.

Alex Saab, a Colombian businessman close to Maduro, was extradited from Cape Verde off the coast of Africa to Miami this week in a money-laundering conspiracy case. It accuses him and a business partner of siphoning $350 million from the Venezuelan government by selling building materials for low-income housing projects in the economically depressed country.

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