Miami prosecutors drop $1.2 billion case against banker linked to Venezuelan-laundering ring

In an rare move, Miami federal prosecutors have dropped a criminal case against a Uruguayan banker who was accused of helping politically connected businessmen launder $1.2 billion that authorities say was fleeced from Venezuela’s state-owned oil company and later invested in Europe and South Florida.

Marcelo Federico Gutierrez Acosta y Lara was accused with other defendants in 2018 of conspiring to commit money laundering by moving the proceeds of massive loans to Petróleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) through a lucrative currency exchange system to Malta, Switzerland and Miami during Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro’s administration.

Gutierrez was one of 12 defendants charged in the high-profile case in which prosecutors allege the Venezuelan ring paid millions of dollars in bribes to PDVSA officials to make highly profitable loans to the national oil company. The loans were made in bolivars and the payments in dollars and euros, while being washed through the Venezuelan government’s favorable currency exchange system to magnify the profits.

So far, five defendants, including three PDVSA officials, a Venezuelan banker and a Miami money manager, have pleaded guilty and been sentenced to prison; six other defendants, including the Venezuelan ringleader, are at large or face trial.

It is not clear why federal prosecutors dropped the conspiracy charge against Gutierrez, the 12th defendant. The government’s order of dismissal, signed by U.S. District Judge Kathleen Williams last month, offers no explanation. On Monday, a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Miami declined to comment.

Took too long to free banker, his lawyer says

Gutierrez’s defense attorney, Bruce Udolf, a former longtime federal prosecutor in South Florida, said his client should never have been included in the original indictment or initial criminal complaint because he played no part in the alleged Venezuelan money laundering racket.

“I’m glad they finally did the right thing, but it’s a shame it took so long,” Udolf told the Miami Herald on Friday, adding that Justice Department inertia and a rotation of case prosecutors contributed to the delay.

“This took five years of my client’s life,” including negotiations with federal prosecutors in South America.

Prosecutors initially alleged Gutierrez agreed to launder some of the tainted Venezuelan loan proceeds though the Puerto Rico-based Vestin Bank International, where he had been a former director. But the transfer never occurred.

According to the criminal complaint, the conspiracy charge against Gutierrez was based on conversations that the banker allegedly had in 2017 meetings with a federal confidential informant who was posing as a representative of a potential client looking to launder money through Vestin Bank.

According to the complaint, the transactions never occurred because the client, a PDVSA official who later pleaded guilty in the case, decided against transferring money through the United States.

But Udolf said that official account was inaccurate. Rather, he said Vestin Bank refused to do the transfer for the PDVSA official, Abraham Edgardo Ortega, after discovering problems with the funds from the Venezuelan government.

Vestin has since been acquired by Standard International Bank and Gutierrez has not been a shareholder since August 2018, Standard said in a statement, adding that it had no links to Vestin’s prior business, no ties to Venezuela and no plans to enter the Venezuelan market.

Udolf also noted that certain facts from the complaint actually exonerated Gutierrez, pointing that a Miami investment broker who later pleaded guilty in the case told the federal informant that Gutierrez did not know about a kickback scheme involving the PDVSA official when he was asked to launder money through Vestin.

“No, no, I haven’t told him anything at all, I mean, zero, zero, zero,” the investment broker, Gustavo Adolfo Hernandez Frieri, told the informant, according to the complaint.

Sham loans to Venezuelan oil company

The case’s main money-laundering scheme unfolded in late 2014 with a sham loan to PDVSA that was repaid through the government’s bolivar-dollar exchange system, siphoning $600 million from the state-owned oil company’s coffers, according to the indictment and other court documents. That money was moved offshore to bank accounts in Switzerland and Malta, though the network of co-conspirators used an associate based in Miami to launder a portion of the PDVSA funds in the United States.

By 2015, the conspiracy had doubled to $1.2 billion embezzled from Venezuela’s national oil company, the indictment says. Meanwhile, an associate became a key informant for U.S. Homeland Security Investigations, including recording conversations in undercover meetings with some of the co-conspirators.

The HSI informant has not been charged in the Miami case. The accused ringleader is Venezuelan Francisco Convit Guruceaga, who allegedly collaborated with other influential business people to exploit the oil-rich administrations of the late President Hugo Chávez and his successor, Maduro, who is also a suspect in the case.

While Convit and other co-conspirators remain at large, five defendants have cooperated with U.S. authorities and pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges.

In July 2023, a former PDVSA general counsel was sentenced to three years after admitting that he accepted more than $11 million in bribes for his supporting role. Alvaro Ledo Nass, a lawyer who also served as secretary of PDVSA’s board of directors, was ordered to pay back the bribery money to the U.S. government as part of his punishment imposed by the judge. He was also fined $7,500.

The judge called the foreign corruption conspiracy “a cancer that acts like a virus.”

Last year, another top lawyer of Venezuela’s oil ministry was sentenced to more than four years in prison. Carmelo Urdaneta Aqui, the former legal counsel for Venezuela’s Ministry of Oil and Mining, was convicted of accepting tens of millions of dollars in bribes and investing some of his illicit payments in a Sunny Isles Beach high-rise condo and other real estate in the Miami area.

Williams, the judge, approved the feds’ seizure of $49 million worth of assets, including his luxury condo in the Porsche Design Tower in Sunny Isles Beach, two apartments in Miami Beach and a Swiss bank account.

Previously, federal prosecutors and Homeland Security Investigations froze hundreds of millions of dollars in bank and real estate assets belonging to the dozen defendants. The first was Venezuelan banker Matthias Krull, who pleaded guilty to conspiring to launder some of the PDVSA money secreted away in European bank accounts.

Krull paid $600,000 forfeiture judgment and served one year and three months because of his extensive assistance to federal prosecutors.

In 2021, Ortega, the former executive director of financial planning at PDVSA, was sentenced to two years and four months after he admitted accepting more than $12 million in bribes that were secretly wired to U.S. and other financial institutions. Ortega also cooperated with prosecutors.

Ortega, who served as PDVSA’s top financial officer from 2014 to 2016, admitted that he conspired with the leader of the money-laundering ring, Guruceaga. Ortega also said he collaborated with the Miami-based investment broker, Hernandez.

Hernandez pleaded guilty to accepting $12 million from Ortega to invest in fake mutual funds in the United States so that the transactions looked legitimate, prosecutors said. Hernandez was sentenced to nearly four years.