A federal judge Wednesday sent a former Venezuelan national treasurer and her husband to prison for 15 years after they were convicted of accepting tens of millions of dollars in bribes in exchange for lucrative government contracts and then moving some of their illicit money to Miami in an unprecedented foreign corruption case.
Claudia Díaz Guillen, and her husband, Adrian Velásquez Figueroa, parents of two young children, sought lenience from U.S. District Judge William Dimitrouleas. But while he acknowledged their lawyers’ argument that the couple’s children would be growing up without them, the judge gave them a sentence that was a only a few years less than the punishment sought by federal prosecutors.
In fact, Dimitrouleas read part of the prosecutors’ sentencing memo when he imposed their prison terms: “The over $136 million received is an astounding amount of money, drastically changing the middle-class life of the defendants to one of multiple private jets, yachts, luxurious world travel, and even a high-end fashion line.”
In addition to prison time, the judge imposed a financial forfeiture penalty of $136 million and an additional fine of $75,000 each to be paid to the U.S. government. The defendants remained silent throughout the proceeding in Miami federal court.
In December, Díaz and Velásquez were found guilty of money laundering by a federal jury, including accepting bribes from wealthy Caracas TV mogul and political insider Raul Gorrín, who was indicted along with them but remains a fugitive in Venezuela.
Prosecutors portrayed Díaz as a “corrupt public official” and Velásquez as “her front man,” saying that Gorrín’s massive payoffs were transferred through offshore companies, Swiss banks, South Florida accounts, a Miami yacht firm and a fashion shell company. In exchange, Gorrín gained access to highly profitable Venezuelan government contracts involving bond deals and corrupt currency trades that yielded billions of dollars during the administration of the late President Hugo Chávez.
“She was in a position of trust, but she chose to take the money,” said Justice Department trial attorney Paul Hayden, who worked on the case with fellow prosecutors Kurt Lunkenheimer and Michael Harper. Hayden told the judge that federal authorities “believe they are hiding assets,” totaling as much as $6 million.
Both prosecutors scoffed at the defense attorneys’ request for far less punishment. Their sentencing memo sought two years in prison for the couple, who had fought their extradition from Spain to the United States.
“While this court had the opportunity to learn about Claudia and Adrian over the course of several weeks at trial, there is more complexity to the story, including politics,” lawyers Marissel Descalzo and Andrew Feldman wrote in a sentencing memo, which sought lenience for the couple in part because they are parents of young children.
“We urge the court that the appropriate sentences for Claudia and Adrian should be the sentence they would receive if convicted in their own country – Venezuela.”
The judge, Dimitrouleas, was unmoved by almost all of their arguments at Wednesday’s hearing, which was moved from Fort Lauderdale to Miami because of record levels of rain and flooding in Broward County last week.
Díaz was the first former Venezuelan official to face trial among dozens of elite businessmen, lawyers and officials who have been charged over the past decade with foreign corruption extending from their homeland to South Florida. The region has been a hub for so-called kleptocrats seeking a safe haven for their ill-gotten fortunes, according to Homeland Security Investigations, the lead federal agency probing the bribery and money laundering cases.
Díaz, 50, a former naval officer and a former nurse for Chávez, served as Venezuela’s national treasurer from 2011 to 2013. Her husband, Velásquez, 44, was a former presidential security guard. Díaz succeeded Alejandro Andrade Cedeno, who served as Venezuela’s treasurer from 2007 to early 2011. He had once worked as a bodyguard for Chavez, the late socialist president who died in 2013.
Díaz took the witness stand in her own defense during the two-and-half-week trial, but she could not overcome the damaging testimony of her predecessor as national treasurer, Andrade. In late 2017, Andrade pleaded guilty to a $1 billion money-laundering conspiracy, served three years in prison and then testified that Gorrín, who was indicted the following year, paid off him and Díaz to gain access to the Venezuelan government’s highly profitable bolivar-dollar currency exchange.
Andrade testified that he recruited Díaz into the corruption scheme when she became Venezuela’s treasurer a decade ago. His testimony marked the first time that he spoke publicly about his complex international crime, which was built upon Venezuela’s vast oil income while the country suffered an economic collapse.
On the witness stand, Andrade detailed how Chávez gave him complete control of the national treasury in 2007. Andrade, who became close to Chávez through their military backgrounds, explained how he cultivated lucrative relationships with three businessmen with brokerage houses that traded bolivars for dollars in order to supply Venezuela’s government with ample domestic currency. He said he allowed them to trade on the wide spread between the government-controlled and open-market exchanges in order to make hundreds of millions of dollars in profits and pay him kickbacks.
Andrade testified that one of the three businessmen, Gorrín, paid massive bribes not only to him but also to his successor, Díaz, and her husband, Velásquez, who acted as her go-between with Gorrín. Andrade said Gorrín asked him to approach Díaz about continuing the bribery scheme to allow him to trade bolivars for dollars for the Venezuelan government when she became the national treasurer in 2011. He said she agreed to do it, and share the profits with him and Gorrín.
“Half would go to her [Díaz] and the other half would be split between Raul [Gorrín] and me,” Andrade testified.
Prosecutors also said Gorrín purchased two yachts and three planes for the couple’s use. They also instructed him to make payments in their stead for a variety of personal services, luxury goods and travel.
Gorrín, a wealthy television network executive, is a fugitive living in Venezuela who was initially charged in the corruption case in late 2018 after Andrade pleaded guilty and was sentenced by a federal judge to 10 years in prison and ordered to pay $1 billion to the U.S. government.
Andrade, who said he still lives in Wellington with his daughter and grandchildren, was forced to give up his equestrian estate with more than a dozen show horses, his fleet of exotic cars and other assets as part of his plea agreement. Gorrín had compensated Andrade in part by paying his bills, including a private jet, when he was living in both Venezuela and South Florida, according to emails, spreadsheets and other documents presented at trial.
As part of his deal with prosecutors, Andrade also paid $250 million hidden in his Swiss bank accounts to the U.S. government.
At trial, Díaz’s defense attorney, Descalzo, pointed out that practically all of the prosecution’s documents, including spreadsheets detailing bribery payments, text messages and WhatsApp chats, were between Andrade and Gorrín — but did not involve Díaz.
Andrade said he never communicated in writing with Díaz about the payoffs from the foreign currency trades, that he only spoke with her about them by phone after he left Venezuela’s national treasury and she headed the agency.
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