MIAMI — A former Venezuelan attorney general who defied President Nicolas Maduro by siding with his opponents has been implicated in a major corruption case involving a Venezuelan businessman who this week pleaded guilty to paying $1 million in bribes, two people familiar with the case said Thursday.
The former official, Luisa Ortega, isn’t mentioned by name in the Miami federal case. But in quietly pleading guilty Monday to a single charge of conspiring to defraud the United States, businessman Carlos Urbano Fermin admitted to paying around $1 million in bribes to a “high-ranking prosecutor” in Venezuela as “insurance” against any investigations into his extensive construction contracts with state-run oil giant PDVSA.
The unnamed Venezuelan official is Ortega, the two people familiar with the case said. They agreed to give the details only if not quoted by name because they weren’t supposed to discuss the investigation, which is still underway.
Ortega did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But last year, when Fermin was charged, she said the bribery allegations were prompted by Venezuela’s arrest of Fermin’s brother in 2019 and were an attempt by Maduro’s government to coerce a confession and tarnish her reputation.
Ortega, a longtime admirer of the late Hugo Chávez, broke with Venezuela’s socialist government in 2017 over what she called the country’s descent into dictatorship when Maduro gutted the opposition-controlled National Assembly and created a parallel constitutional assembly to rule supreme.
For her outspoken views, she was removed as attorney general and promptly fled to neighboring Colombia, where she and a team of exiled prosecutors sharpened their attacks on corruption back home as well as provided evidence to the International Criminal Court of human rights abuses allegedly committed by Maduro’s government.
Allies of opposition leader Juan Guaidó rallied to her defense, calling her Venezuela’s “legitimate” chief prosecutor and seeking to leverage her defection to build a broader, anti-Maduro coalition.
But she could never completely shake her reputation as a loyalist who served as the Bolivarian revolution’s chief judicial enforcer for a decade. The U.S. always kept an arm’s distance, refusing to grant her request to travel to Washington, two American officials told The Associated Press in 2017. It didn’t help that in a 2015 speech to the National Assembly, Ortega criticized the “powerful ones of the north” for their “colonial designs” on Venezuela’s oil wealth.
According to a three-page, heavily redacted factual proffer accompanying his plea, Fermin said that between 2012 and 2016 his companies obtained numerous large contracts from three PDVSA joint ventures with foreign oil companies — among them China National Petroleum Company, Russia’s Rosneft and France’s Total SA.
In early 2017, Ortega’s office had an investigation into the awarding of the contracts with the joint ventures in the Orinoco belt sitting atop the world’s largest crude reserves, according to Fermin’s plea. Around the same time, he was approached by a lawyer in Venezuela who was close to the unnamed high-ranking prosecutor with the promise that he could quash any criminal probe, Fermin said.
Describing himself as an “insurance policy,” the intermediary “advised the defendant that he had the ability to prevent criminal charges,” according to the court filing.
Afterward, Fermin said, he wired approximately $1 million from the U.S. to accounts for the benefit of the unnamed Venezuelan official, including a $100,000 payment to a bank in the Miami suburb of Coral Gables. The Venezuelan government never brought any charges against Fermin’s companies.
Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Berger charged Fermin 13 months ago but the Venezuelan was only arrested this month. After pleading guilty this week, he was released on a $100,000 personal surety bond — a sign he has been cooperating with investigators. He is scheduled to be sentenced in September.
Joshua Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman