(Bloomberg) -- A former Venezuelan oil official who was picked up by U.S. agents after fleeing the country pleaded not guilty to charges that he took part in a billion-dollar corruption scheme that helped torpedo the oil-rich nation’s economy.
Carmelo Urdaneta Aqui, a onetime legal counsel to Venezuela’s powerful oil ministry, appeared in federal court in Miami on Monday. Earlier, he agreed to talk to U.S. authorities about aiding their years-long bribery and laundering investigation, a person who was briefed on the discussions said. The U.S. brought charges against Urdaneta and eight other well-connected Venezuelans in 2018.
U.S. District Judge Lauren Louis in Miami accepted Urdaneta’s plea, entered by his lawyers Robin Rathmell and Martin DeLuca of Kobre & Kim, and ordered his release on a $1.5 million bond secured by four Florida properties.
Prosecutors asked that Urdaneta’s U.S. address be sealed for security reasons.
Urdaneta escaped from Venezuela last week and was picked up at the Colombian border by U.S. federal agents, who brought him to Florida, the person said. The attorneys representing him in Miami didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.
Urdaneta could provide U.S. prosecutors with a view into the circle of President Nicolas Maduro and the business elite who rose to riches in Venezuela, several of whom are the focus of the U.S. investigation of corruption at its once-mighty state-owned oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela SA. PDVSA, as it is known, has been battered in recent years by mismanagement and pilfering, contributing to the country’s humanitarian crisis. Hundreds of billions of dollars in all have been looted from Venezuela over the years, James Story, the U.S. charge d’affaires to Venezuela, said this month.
In their charges filed in Miami, U.S. prosecutors say that professional launderers worked for years to hide the movement of $1.2 billion stolen through bribery and fraud from PDVSA, Venezuela’s primary source of income and foreign currency. Three of the defendants charged alongside Urdaneta have pleaded guilty.
Matthias Krull, a former Swiss banker at Julius Baer, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for his role in the scheme.
Earlier: Ex-Venezuela Official Flees to Aid U.S. in Corruption Probe
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