On November 25, 2020, Natalino D’Amato (“D’Amato”), a Venezuelan executive, was charged in an 11-count indictment with allegedly laundering $160 million between 2013 and 2017. The indictment, filed in the Southern District of Florida, includes one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering, four counts of international money laundering, three counts of promotional money laundering, and three counts of engaging in transactions involving criminally derived property. It is the latest episode in the enforcement campaign of the U.S. Department of Justice (“DOJ”) against alleged corruption involving Venezuela in general, and Venezuela’s state-owned and controlled energy company Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (“PDVSA”) in particular.
According to the indictment, D’Amato used bank accounts held in South Florida to launder the proceeds of a bribery scheme involving PDVSA and its subsidiaries (“PDVSA Subsidiaries”). D’Amato allegedly sold goods and services to the PDVSA Subsidiaries after bribing Venezuelan officials to secure procurement contracts at highly inflated prices. The scheme included wire transfers totaling more than $160 million from PDVSA Subsidiaries to bank accounts in the U.S. that were owned or controlled by D’Amato. In the indictment, the government also seeks to secure over $45 million that D’Amato is holding in seven personal and corporate accounts at banks and an investment company.
As noted, the indictment against D’Amato is just the latest in a string of Venezuelan-based indictments filed by the U.S. government. In fact, in March 2020, Leonardo Santilli (“Santilli”), also a Venezuelan businessman, was charged in the Southern District of Florida for his role in a similar money-laundering scheme involving inflated oil contracts with the Venezuelan government. In September, Santilli was gunned down by a motorcycle assassin in Venezuela because he reportedly was suspected of cooperating with federal prosecutors. According to witnesses, the assailant fired as many as eight times at Santilli.
As we have blogged (here, here, and here) the DOJ consistently has pursued Venezuelan nationals through high-dollar, high profile money laundering and foreign bribery charges. Although D’Amato is a private citizen, we also have previously discussed how the DOJ has been utilizing the money laundering statutes as a way to accomplish what the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (“FCPA”) cannot accomplish directly – the bringing of charges against foreign officials, including Venezuelan officials. Perhaps the most eye-catching example is the case brought in July 2018 – also in the Southern District of Florida – charging eight individuals with conspiracy to commit money laundering and interstate and foreign travel in aid of racketeering enterprises for their alleged involvement in a sprawling, highly sophisticated international money laundering conspiracy. The charges (see here and here) allege conduct designed to embezzle $1.2 billion from PDVSA and launder that money through fraudulent transactions involving the sale of false securities and high-end real estate and through fraudulent contractual relationships in the United States and Europe.
Venezuela has also been at the center of money laundering indictments involving U.S. citizens. A notable example is Bruce Bagley, a professor of international studies whose scholarship focused on U.S.-Latin American relations, was accused of using domestic banks to launder $3 million in proceeds from an alleged Venezuelan corruption and bribery scheme connected with public works projects. On June 1, 2020, Dr. Bagley pled guilty to two counts of money laundering. Sentencing has been rescheduled to April. The professor had gone “from writing the book on crime—literally writing a book on drug trafficking and organized crime—to committing crimes,” according to Geoffrey S. Berman, the former U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York.