Swiss and Argentine charged with $1.2 billion Venezuelan money laundering scheme

Rick Steves

Two financial asset managers, Swiss citizen Ralph Steinmann and Argentine citizen Luis Fernando Vuteff, have been charged with one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering.

Oil production

According to the indictment returned in the Southern District of Florida, the defendants were part of a $1.2 billion international scheme to launder funds corruptly obtained from Venezuela’s state-owned and state-controlled energy company, Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA).

The currency exchange scheme was designed to embezzle around $600 million from PDVSA, obtained through bribery and fraud, and the defendants’ efforts to launder a portion of the proceeds of that scheme.

By May 2015, the conspiracy had allegedly doubled in amount to $1.2 billion embezzled from PDVSA.  PDVSA is Venezuela’s primary source of income and foreign currency (namely, U.S. Dollars and Euros).

Court documents allege that the criminal activity began in December 2014 and continued until at least August 2018 and included an illegal bribery scheme using the U.S. financial system as well as various bank accounts located abroad in order to launder illicit proceeds in connection with a corrupt foreign currency exchange scheme involving bribery of Venezuelan officials.

Steinmann, Vuteff, and others have prepared a sophisticated operation to launder more than $200 million related to the scheme as well as open accounts for or on behalf of at least two Venezuelan public officials to receive their bribe payments related to the scheme.

Up to 20 years in prison

The federal district court hasn’t determined any sentence yet but, if charged, defendants face up to 20 years in prison for conspiracy to commit money laundering.

Vuteff has already been arrested and is pending extradition from Switzerland. Steinmann remains a fugitive from the United States.

This case is the result of the ongoing efforts by the Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Force’s Operation Money Flight, a partnership between and among federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies.

Operation Money Flight has brought many other foreign nationals to face justice in the United States for being part of the billion-dollar money laundering scheme.

In 2018, German national Matthias Krull and Colombian national Gustavo Adolfo Hernandez Frieri were charged in a criminal complaint with conspiracy to commit money laundering.

The complaint also charged Francisco Convit Guruceaga, 40; Jose Vincente Amparan Croquer, aka, “Chente,” 44; Carmelo Urdaneta Aqui, 44; and Abraham Eduardo Ortega, 51, all Venezuelan nationals; and Hugo Andre Ramalho Gois, 39, a Portuguese national, and Marcelo Federico Gutierrez Acosta y Lara, 40, a Uruguayan national, for their alleged participation in the scheme.

These defendants remain at large.  Krull was arrested last night in Miami and had his initial court appearance earlier today before U.S. Magistrate Judge Alicia M. Otazo-Reyes in Miami.  Krull is scheduled to have a pre-trial detention hearing on July 30, and a preliminary hearing on Aug. 8.  Frieri was arrested today in Sicily, Italy and faces extradition proceedings.

The complaint alleges that surrounding and supporting these false-investment laundering schemes are complicit money managers, brokerage firms, banks and real estate investment firms in the United States and elsewhere, operating as a network of professional money launderers.

The alleged conspirators include former PDVSA officials, professional third-party money launderers, and members of the Venezuelan elite, sometimes known as “boliburgués.”

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