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Boss of Texas, Florida energy companies pleads guilty to Venezuela bribery charges

By Martin Smith
Boss of Texas, Florida energy companies pleads guilty to Venezuela bribery charges
The Department of Justice has been investigating allegations of bribery and corruption involving U.S. businesses' dealings with Venezuela's national energy company Petróleos de Venezuela S.A. Photo courtesy of PDVSA.

HOUSTON, June 17 (UPI) -- The owner of several U.S. energy companies pleaded guilty Thursday to bribery and tax charges over a scheme to obtain contracts worth millions of dollars from Venezuela's state-owned oil and gas company, PDVSA.

Roberto Enrique Rincon Fernandez, 55, from Houston, faces up to five years in prison on the bribery counts and three years for making false income tax statements.

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Judge Gray Miller, of the Southern District of Texas, will decide his sentence Sept. 30.

Rincon and his business partner, Abraham Jose Shiera Bastidas, were arrested last year over the scheme which is said to have run from 2009 to 2014. Shiera Bastidas, from Coral Gables, Fla., pleaded guilty to similar charges in March.

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The U.S. Justice Department's investigation into PDVSA business deals and kickbacks has so far netted six people, including three foreign officials. All have agreed to forfeit the proceeds from their scheme as part of their guilty pleas.

Rincon was one of PDVSA's top oil equipment providers. Officials responsible for procurement at Venezuela's state-owned company were wined and dined and treated to expensive hotel stays and other extravagances.

"The foreign officials admitted that while employed by PDVSA or its wholly owned subsidiaries or affiliates, they accepted bribes from Rincon and Shiera in exchange for taking certain actions to assist companies owned by Rincon and Shiera in winning energy contracts with PDVSA," the U.S. Department of Justice stated in a press release, describing the investigation as "ongoing."

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In his plea agreement, Rincon admitted that he willfully failed to report on his 2010 tax return more than $6 million in foreign dividend income from a Venezuelan corporation he owned, according to Houston-based U.S. Attorney Kenneth Magidson.

Rincon was arrested at his home in December after a grand jury returned an 18-count indictment against him and Shiera.

They were accused of money laundering and violating the Corrupt Practices Act, which bars payments to officials of foreign governments to assist business deals.

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The indictment also stated that two of Rincon's companies were involved in transferring more than $25 million from a Texas bank to accounts in Switzerland in 2011 and 2012. Rincon ran four energy companies, including at least two in Texas and one in Florida.

Shiera is awaiting sentencing, along with three PDVSA officials, Jose Ramos, Christian Maldonado and Alfonzo Gravina, all from the Houston suburb of Katy. They acknowledged accepting bribes from Shiera or Rincon to help the two men's Florida and Texas energy companies win contracts.

Another man, Moises Millan, of Katy, pleaded guilty in January to one count of conspiracy to violate the Corrupt Practices Act for his role in the scheme.

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The case has caused controversy in Venezuela, where the opposition has accused the governing socialists of looting PDVSA and bankrupting the nation.

But PDVSA bosses insist that it is all part of what it calls an international campaign to discredit the oil company by linking it to alleged criminal acts by Venezuelan individuals and other companies.

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