A former Venezuelan government official was sentenced to more than four years in prison and ordered to forfeit a Coral Gables condo over his role in an alleged $1.2 billion embezzlement from the country’s state-owned oil company.
The sentencing of Carmelo Urdaneta Aqui, a former attorney for the country’s Ministry of Oil, is the latest in the U.S. government’s four-year pursuit of Venezuelan officials and their collaborators on claims they embezzled from Venezuela’s Petróleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA) oil company, funneled the funds through offshore bank accounts and then laundered them through assets, including South Florida real estate.
Federal prosecutors previously alleged that Urdaneta discussed using the equity on a down payment for a unit at the car-elevator-equipped Porsche Design Tower in Sunny Isles Beach as payment to an alleged Venezuelan money launderer, but have backed off of those claims in subsequent filings.
Urdaneta, who pleaded guilty last summer to conspiracy to commit money laundering, is the fourth person sentenced out of eight who have been charged in the alleged scheme. A federal judge on Thursday ordered him to also serve three years of supervised release and pay a $35,000 fine, according to the court docket. His 52-month prison term is less than half of the 120 months prosecutors had pushed for in court filings.
The decision came down two days after a judge ordered Urdaneta to forfeit unit 704 at The Minorca, a condo building at 2030 Douglas Road in Coral Gables, court records show.
Prosecutors allege that Urdaneta obtained $49 million in bribes for his role in the embezzlement scheme, which he agreed to forfeit in his guilty plea. Substitute assets can be forfeited if the government cannot locate the entirety of the $49 million, according to court filings.
The court filings did not specify whether the Gables unit was connected to the alleged scheme. The forfeiture order will not become final until others with a potential stake in the unit have a chance to present claims to the court.
An entity managed by another individual with the last name of Urdaneta paid $467,000 for the three-bedroom, two-bath unit in 2013, records show.
Urdaneta’s attorneys did not respond to a request for comment.
The scheme largely involved exploiting Venezuela’s unique currency exchange system, which allowed, in certain cases, for Venezuelan bolivars to be artificially overvalued, according to prosecutors’ filings.
From 2012 to 2017, prosecutors allege Urdaneta was involved in two schemes in which collaborators issued loans in bolivars to PDVSA but were paid back at the government’s fixed exchange rate, yielding a significant profit. In one example, participants loaned 7.2 billion bolivars, which would have been worth roughly $50 million at the market exchange rate, but received $600 million when the loans were paid back at the fixed exchange rate.
As an attorney for the oil ministry, Urdaneta crafted the legal mechanisms and loan documents that facilitated the loans, pocketed some of the profits as bribes and rerouted some through a Swiss bank account and then into real estate, prosecutors allege.
In BlackBerry messenger chats obtained by prosecutors, Urdaneta instructed another participant in the scheme — who eventually cooperated with investigators — how to handle some of the bribe money, including telling him to transfer $11 million for the purchase of condos in Panama, court filings allege.
The U.S. government has sought the forfeiture of multiple properties throughout South Florida in connection to the case. It has already seized at least one: unit 2205 at Dezer Development’s Porsche Design Tower at 18555 Collins Avenue in Sunny Isles Beach in 2020, which it sold for $3.2 million last year.
In 2018, prosecutors identified an Icon Brickell condo, four Coral Gables homes, a Wellington equestrian estate and other real estate as “substitute property” that could be seized but was not necessarily involved in criminal activity.
Shortly afterward, prosecutors moved to seize three Coral Gables homes and another in Miami in connection to the case.
When the case was first filed in 2018, court filings alleged that Urdaneta discussed transferring the Porsche unit to Jose Vincente Amparan Croquer, an accused money launderer, using the equity on the down payment as an alleged fee for his services. In more recent filings, prosecutors alleged the unit was not a laundering fee, but that Urdaneta was asking Amparan to help him sell the condo.
Swiss banker Matthias Krull, a former wealth manager with the Julius Baer Group bank, is among the others sentenced. Last year, his prison term was slashed to three-and-a-half years, down from the original 10 years, in exchange for his cooperation in the case.