By Jay Weaver (dpa)
HAVANA TIMES – Alejandro Andrade, the former Venezuelan national treasurer and close friend of the late President Hugo Chavez, has surrendered to U.S. prison authorities to start a 10-year sentence for his key role in a 1-billion-dollar money-laundering racket extending from Venezuela to South Florida.
In exchange for staggering bribes, Andrade provided access to the Venezuelan government’s lucrative foreign-currency exchanges both before and after Chavez’s death in 2013, allowing himself, other senior officials and a prominent businessman to amass a fortune at the expense of the Venezuelan people, according to court records.
U.S. District Judge Robin Rosenberg imposed the maximum sentence for Andrade’s money-laundering conspiracy conviction in West Palm Beach federal court in November.
But Andrade, 54, was allowed to surrender Monday to the US Bureau of Prisons because he has been assisting federal authorities in the massive corruption and money-laundering investigation.
Federal prosecutors are expected to recommend a partial reduction of his 10-year sentence because of his extensive cooperation.
Andrade’s defense attorney, Curtis Miner, did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday on his surrender.
Andrade, who pleaded guilty to a money-laundering conspiracy charge at a secret court proceeding in late 2017, has assisted the feds in building a sprawling criminal case against some of Venezuela’s richest people.
Among them: TV network tycoon Raul Gorrin, 50, who was indicted in November, one day before the case against Andrade was unsealed in federal court.
The indictment charges Gorrin, 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 South Florida probe of Andrade was first reported by the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald last March. Andrade, a former Chavez bodyguard who rose to become national treasurer, faced up to 10 years in prison under his plea agreement – substantially less time than Gorrin now faces as a fugitive wanted by federal authorities in Miami.
Andrade, Gorrin and other associates in Venezuela’s government, banking and business sectors are accused of enriching themselves by capitalizing on favorable foreign currency exchanges and concealing their massive profits in European and U.S. bank accounts and investments, according to Gorrin’s indictment.
Andrade used his official position to give Gorrin access to the government’s preferred exchange rates to maximize profits on currency transactions. The funds to fuel the scheme were generated by the national treasury’s issuance of bonds.
The international money-laundering scheme allegedly led by Gorrin transpired over a period of extreme economic hardship for everyday Venezuelans.
Oil rich and once wealthy, Venezuela is in the throes of an economic and political collapse that has led to hyperinflation and food shortages. More than 3 million people have fled the country in recent years, according to the United Nations.
At his sentencing hearing in November, Andrade apologized to the judge, his family and the Venezuelan people for his crime, and then described how he became involved in a “movement” led by Chavez before betraying the public’s trust.
“I made some very bad choices when I was treasurer, and for that I am very sorry from the bottom of my heart,” said Andrade, who served as the top financial official in Venezuela’s government from 2007 to 2010 before moving with his family to South Florida in 2014. “To this day, I am convinced the decision I made (to cooperate) is the right one.”
Before his sentencing, Andrade owned several properties in the wealthy equestrian community of Wellington in the western part of Palm Beach County.
In a 1 billion dollar forfeiture judgment, the U.S. attorney’s office and Homeland Security Investigations have taken those tainted properties, along with his vast collection of high-priced cars, show-jumping horses and watches.
Kevin Tyrrell, assistant special agent in charge of HSI’s El Dorado Task Force-South, said the U.S. government is still in the process of selling Andrade’s array of assets, including 14 prized show horses appraised at a total of $9 million. The horses are being auctioned at an equestrian training facility in Delray Beach.
“This was very much an exception for us to seize live animals,” Tyrrell said. “We had to get permission at the highest level.”
The warm-blood horses, with names like Bonjovi, Hardrock Z and Tinker Bell, were imported from various parts of Europe, court records show. Andrade’s son, Emanuel, used them to compete in show-jumping events in South Florida and other parts of the world.
Agents also seized Andrade’s fleet of luxury vehicles, from a 2017 Mercedes-Benz GLS 550 to a 2015 Bentley Continental Convertible, along with numerous U.S. and Swiss bank accounts and a vast collection of high-end watches.
In addition, Gorrin paid for an array of lavish expenses for Andrade, including three jets and a yacht, according to Gorrin’s indictment and other court records. He even paid some of Andrade’s veterinarian bills.
At November’s sentencing, federal prosecutors Vanessa Snyder and Michael Nadler said Andrade conspired with Gorrin and two other government officials in the money-laundering ring by giving them access to Venezuela’s favorable dollar-to-bolivar currency exchange.
They said the scheme generated about 2.4 billion dollars 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.
But Andrade’s defense attorneys said the co-conspirators controlled the bank accounts and that their client received about 70 million dollars in bribes – not 1 billion dollars.
The U.S. cases against Andrade and Gorrin are unrelated to a 1.2 billion-dollar South Florida money-laundering indictment filed in July that charged nine defendants, including some close to President Nicolas Maduro, with embezzling vast sums of money from Venezuela’s national oil company and washing it through foreign currency exchanges to inflate profits.
Millions in ill-gotten funds were invested in South Florida’s real estate market, including luxury high-rise condos and waterfront mansions in the Cocoplum section of Coral Gables.