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Venezuelan oil official flees to U.S. with intel on Maduro’s inner circle

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(Bloomberg) –A former Venezuelan oil official fled the country and is talking to U.S. authorities about aiding their investigation of a high-level corruption scheme that helped plunge the oil-rich nation into an economic meltdown.

Carmelo Urdaneta Aqui, a onetime legal counsel to the country’s powerful oil ministry, will appear in a Miami federal courthouse to face money laundering charges, according to a person familiar with the matter. He is expected to be arraigned as soon as Monday on the charges, which were brought against him and several other well-connected Venezuelans in 2018, according to a person briefed on the discussions.

Urdaneta escaped from Venezuela last week and was picked up by U.S. federal agents at the Colombian border, who brought him to Florida, the person said. Urdaneta has attorneys representing him in Miami, according to documents filed Monday.

The Justice Department in Miami didn’t immediately comment. Attorneys for Urdaneta didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

Urdaneta could provide U.S. prosecutors with a view into the circle of President Nicolas Maduro and the business elite who rose to riches in Venezuela, several of whom are the focus of a U.S. investigation of corruption at its once-mighty oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela. PDVSA, as it is known, has been battered in recent years by mismanagement and pilfering, contributing to the country’s humanitarian crisis. Hundreds of billions of dollars in all have been looted from Venezuela over the years, James Story, the U.S. charge d’affaires to Venezuela, said earlier this month.

In their 2018 charges filed in Miami, U.S. prosecutors say that professional launderers worked for years to hide the movement of $1.2 billion stolen through bribery and fraud from PDVSA, Venezuela’s primary source of income and foreign currency. Urdaneta was charged in that case alongside eight others, three of whom have already pleaded guilty.

Matthias Krull, a former Swiss banker at Julius Baer, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for his role in the scheme.

The U.S. has sanctioned more than 150 Venezuelan connected individuals in an aggressive crackdown on what it sees as massive fraud and corruption in the Latin American nation. The Justice Department has pursued several corruption cases related to the country. Earlier this year, federal prosecutors in New York announced charges against Maduro and other Venezuelan officials in a massive drug trafficking case involving Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia, or FARC.

The Trump administration has also extended support to opposition leader Juan Guaido and ramped up pressure and sanctions on Maduro’s government.

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