Maduro’s ally met with US agents before arrest

MIAMI (AP) – A businessman accused of pocketing millions of dollars from Venezuela’s state contracts secretly met with U.S. law enforcement agencies to give them information about the government of Nicolás Maduro before being indicted in 2019 on money laundering charges, according to documents. pertaining to another related court case against a disgraced University of Miami professor.

The American professor Bruce Bagley, who before being arrested in 2019 was an expert on the subject of organized crime in Latin America, will be sentenced next week in a Manhattan court, based on accusations of money laundering as a result of payments for almost $ 3 million he received from businessman Alex Saab.

In his clemency plea, Bagley’s attorney argued that his client was told that the money, most of which was deposited into the bank account of an unidentified intermediary, was to conceal payments from attorneys in the United States who accompanied Saab to meetings in which Saab allegedly gave information about the Venezuelan government to law enforcement officials.

Attorney Peter Quijano wrote in a heavily censored 27-page memorandum filed Wednesday that “it has not been refuted” that Saab and the broker created “this method of transferring funds in order to hide Saab’s payments to the Venezuelan government from the government. lawyers in the United States ”.

After The Associated Press reported on the meetings, the memorandum was removed from the public record on the instructions of Judge Jed Rakoff and then included again, but the details of Saab’s meeting with US officials were blacked out.

Saab, a Colombian citizen, was extradited to the United States from Cape Verde last month, following a lengthy legal battle that keeps relations between Washington and Caracas tense.

The United States has described Saab as the main conduit for acts of corruption in Venezuela, someone who profited enormously from official contracts to import food, while much of the Venezuelan population went hungry. The Maduro government considers him a Venezuelan diplomat who was “kidnapped” during a humanitarian mission that was more urgent due to US sanctions.

It is not known exactly what was discussed in those meetings, which until now had not been disclosed, or if Saab offered solid information or if it simply used the opportunity to find out about the investigations that the US authorities have opened against it.

David Rivkin, one of Saab’s lawyers, pointed out that the claim that his client had ever cooperated with US authorities was “totally false”.

“At all times, Alex Saab has been a loyal citizen of Venezuela and has carried out all his activities with the full knowledge and endorsement of the Venezuelan government,” he added.

But Bagley’s explanation coincides with what was reported by three sources familiar with the investigation against Saab, that he met with US federal officials, including the DEA, several times in Colombia and Europe, before being charged in 2019. The three sources spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity.

It is common for federal prosecutors and US agents to meet with suspects in other countries, trying to recruit them to report on major offenders in exchange for confidentiality or a possible sentence reduction.

However, meeting with US agents would pose serious risks for Saab, given its close relationships with the Venezuelan elite, including Maduro’s own family.

The federal prosecutor’s office in Miami accused Saab in 2019 of money laundering, in connection with an alleged bribery scheme that earned him more than 350 million dollars from a Venezuelan government project to build housing for low-income sectors.

In addition, the previous US government, led by Donald Trump, imposed sanctions on Saab in connection with allegations that it used a series of shell companies in different parts of the world – the United Arab Emirates, Turkey, Hong Kong, Panama, Colombia and Mexico. to hide huge profits from direct allocation contracts for the importation of food at inflated prices that he obtained through the payment of bribes. Several Saab associates, including a veteran business associate of his and a provincial governor of the ruling party, were indicted last month, accused of being involved in this plot.

Some of Saab’s contracts were obtained by paying bribes to the adult children of Venezuelan first lady Cilia Flores, the Trump administration alleged when it announced the sanctions. The three children of Flores – from a previous relationship and commonly nicknamed “Los Chamos” (“the boys”) – have also been investigated for several years by the Miami prosecutor’s office.

The federal prosecutor’s office in Miami, in charge of the Saab investigation, declined to comment.

Bagley’s role in Saab’s alleged bribery scheme appears to have been relatively minor.

Rivkin said Saab never met with Bagley and didn’t even work with him on anything. However, that would appear to contradict what Saab stated to the Colombian newspaper El Espectador. In an interview in April, Saab said he was saddened by Bagley’s legal troubles and that he had been recommended to the University of Miami professor as an expert who could help defuse what he saw as a motive money laundering investigation. politicians.

Whatever their relationship, Bagley’s role in Saab’s alleged bribery ring appears to have been relatively minor.

Saab initially hired Bagley to help him secure a student visa for his son and later asked him for advice on investments in Guatemala, according to prosecutors. Starting in roughly November 2017, Bagley began receiving monthly deposits of about $ 200,000 from a suspected food company in the United Arab Emirates. Additional funds were transferred from an account in Switzerland.

Bagley then transferred 90% of that money to accounts controlled by an informant in the belief that it would be referred to Saab’s attorneys in the United States, but Bagley retained 10% as commission and continued to accept the money even after a of his accounts were closed for suspicious activity. In total, according to the prosecution, he received about $ 3 million.

The informant’s name was crossed out in the memo to protect his identity. But last year, when pleading guilty in court, Bagley identified him as Jorge Luis Hernández, alias Boli, a veteran US counter-narcotics informant from his native Colombia, who has also served as an intermediary between drug traffickers and defense attorneys in the United States.

Bagley, an expert on the Colombian underworld, had offered statements in support of Hernández when he applied for asylum in the United States, arguing that he would be killed if he was deported to Colombia, where he had links to the paramilitaries that controlled drug trafficking on the Caribbean coast. .

Over the years, Hernández offered Bagley sizable contracts to provide consulting services to several Latin American politicians, including a Colombian governor, Kiko Gómez, linked to the paramilitaries and an unidentified Paraguayan presidential candidate.

On one occasion in 2019, Bagley traveled to New York to meet with Luis Domínguez Trujillo, a candidate for the Dominican presidency and grandson of the late dictator of that Caribbean country, Rafael Trujillo. Bagley didn’t know, but the encounter was being monitored on instructions from New York prosecutors.

“But Dr. Bagley, who was not motivated by the possibility of making a large amount of money, rejected (Boli’s) offer to work for a questioned politician, frustrating that particular attempt (by Boli) to turn over an indictee,” he wrote Quijano.

When Bagley finally gave in to Hernández’s requests, he thought it was to protect Saab from possible retaliation by powerful people in Venezuela should they come to believe he was cooperating with US authorities, Bagley’s lawyer said.

“The concern was not that the United States found out about these payments but that individuals in the Venezuelan government or its environment discovered them,” Quijano wrote. “Saab agreed (with Boli) that their financial relationship could make many powerful people in Venezuela nervous, in light of their close relationships with government officials there. For the same reason, Saab could not pay its lawyers in the United States directly ”.

However, prosecutors insist that Bagley knew the funds were the product of corruption, taken from public monies “stolen from one of the poorest and most vulnerable populations in the world.”

“Yes, it is corruption,” the professor told Hernández in a recorded conversation in December 2018, adding that he knew that Saab was deeply involved in importing food on behalf of the Maduro government. “They have imported the worst quality products at inflated prices, filling their pockets.”

Prosecutors argue that Bagley, in his statements to law enforcement agencies, has shown no regrets and has not even acknowledged his involvement in any criminal conduct. Even so, they have asked Judge Jed Rakoff to impose a sentence lower than the regulation, between 46 and 57 months in prison, due to his age (75 years) and his delicate state of health.

Bagley retired from the University of Miami last year after a long career as a professor of international studies. Bagley, as an expert on money laundering and organized crime, wrote numerous books on the subject, testified before Congress, and was regularly hired as an expert witness in court matters. As part of their clemency petition, the attorneys provided the names of 39 individuals on behalf of whom they testified in their asylum petitions or immigration proceedings.


Follow Goodman on Twitter as @APJoshGoodman

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