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Venezuela’s top judge was paid bribes for favors, spent millions in Miami, feds say

The highest-ranking judge in Venezuela — on par with the chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court — doled out legal favors to obtain millions in bribes paid through Miami and foreign bank accounts that he spent on chartered private jets, expensive watches and other luxury goods in South Florida, federal prosecutors say.

Maikel Moreno, president of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice, was charged on Thursday with laundering bribes that he accepted from white-collar defendants seeking breaks in their high-stakes fraud and financial cases in Venezuela.

Moreno, whose criminal case was filed in Miami on the same day that President Nicolás Maduro and others were charged in New York with narco-terrorism, is portrayed in a complaint as a judge who deploys his power to enrich himself at the expense of justice.

On Thursday, Miami U.S. Attorney Ariana Fajardo Orshan said Moreno is yet another figure in a long line of Venezuelan officials who have stolen billions from the nation’s government and oil resources and who have spent their dirty money in Miami’s upscale real estate market and high-end retail stores.

“An independent judiciary is the last line of defense against the powerful and corrupt stealing the financial assets, natural resources and other treasures of the Venezuelan nation,” Fajardo said, noting that her office has already seized more than $450 million in bank accounts and assets in several cases involving more than a dozen Venezuelan defendants, including a former national treasurer.

“The charges against Chief Justice Moreno demonstrate that this last line of defense in Venezuela has crumbled, creating a system without the rule of law and without justice,” she said during a video news conference with U.S. Attorney General William Barr in Washington, D.C., and U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman in New York. “In short, Venezuela has descended into a state of corruption, resulting in a massive treasure grab for the rich and powerful.”

According to a criminal affidavit, Moreno has been the president of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice since 2017 and had headed the criminal division of Venezuela’s highest court and other judicial positions before that major promotion. Federal prosecutor Michael Berger and agents with Homeland Security Investigations began focusing on Moreno’s alleged misconduct after digging into kickback and money-laundering schemes between officials with Venezuela’s national oil company, PDVSA, and contractors based in Miami and elsewhere.

When Moreno once applied for a U.S. visa in 2016, he reported that he made $12,000 a year from his job in the Venezuela judicial system. But investigators later discovered that he had received about $3 million in his Bank of America account in Miami between 2012 and 2016.

According to the affidavit, an unidentified Venezuelan described as a former criminal defense attorney who controls a media company made two wire transfers into Moreno’s Miami account — the first for $500,000 from a Swiss bank and the second for $300,000 from an Austrian bank. The Miami Herald has learned that the person who wired the money is Raúl Gorrín, a politically connected businessman close to Maduro and to his predecessor, the late President Hugo Chávez. Gorrín is wanted in a separate money-laundering case in Miami on charges of bribing the former national treasurer, Alejandro Andrade, to embezzle hundreds of millions from Venezuela’s government. Andrade is now serving a 10-year prison term in the United States.

The affidavit says Moreno spent $1 million on private jets and pilots in travel from Venezuela to Miami and other destinations, $600,000 in credit card purchases for Prada, Ferragamo and other designer goods at Bal Harbour Shops, $50,000 at a luxury watch repair shop in Aventura, and a $40,000 payment to a Venezuelan beauty pageant director.

In 2017, the U.S. Treasury Department froze Moreno’s bank account and other assets in the United States after the supreme court in Venezuela stripped away authority from the nation’s legislature.

Two cooperating witnesses — an associate of Moreno’s and an attorney in Venezuela — told federal investigators that the chief justice accepted bribes in dozens of instances from parties in both criminal and civil cases, according to the affidavit.

In one civil case between a General Motors plant and Venezuelan GM auto dealers in 2017, Moreno ruled in favor of closing the $100 million GM facility rather than keeping it open for thousands of workers, the affidavit says. In exchange, he was promised by the auto dealers’ attorney a “significant percentage of the proceeds” from the eventual sale of the GM plant after its seizure. The payment is still pending because the facility has not been sold.

A white-collar defendant had his criminal case dismissed by Moreno after he gave the judge a “luxurious residence” in the affluent neighborhood of Alto Hatillo in Caracas, according to the affidavit. The judge kept his watch collection in the house, including one timepiece worth $1 million, the affidavit says.

Although the defendant in the Venezuelan case is not identified, the Herald has learned he is Francisco Convit. He is the lead defendant in a $1 billion money-laundering case in Miami, accusing him and several others of making sham loans to the state-owned oil company, PDVSA, and receiving astronomical sums from the government in return. Most of the money was moved to Europe, but some ended up in U.S. bank accounts and Miami real estate.

Both cooperating witnesses told federal investigators that Moreno received $1 million in a bribe payment from Miami to ensure the release of an oil contractor from custody who was charged in a PDVSA corruption case in Venezuela, according to the affidavit. They said that instead of directly receiving the actual money, it was used to buy a commercial property for Moreno in Caracas.

The payoff was arranged through a second PDVSA contractor based in Miami who had received a $100 million contract from the national oil company for drilling equipment.

Eventually, the Miami contractor sent $700,000 from a Bank of America account to another account in Puerto Rico for the benefit of the seller of the Caracas commercial property. A second transfer of $300,000 was sent from a bank account in Panama to another account in Portugal for the seller’s benefit.

Fajardo, the U.S. attorney in Miami, said Moreno has specialized in cases involving fraud and financial crimes so that he could take advantage of deep-pocketed business defendants willing to pay bribes for their freedom. She said the chief justice “ received large bribes to authorize the dismissal of charges or the release from custody of multiple Venezuelans who literally stole billions of dollars from Venezuela’s state-owned oil proceeds.”

This story was originally published March 27, 2020 5:43 PM.

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