November 18, 2013 / 7:41 PM / 6 years ago

Ex-Venezuelan banking official pleads guilty in U.S. bribery case

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A former Venezuelan state banking official admitted on Monday to taking bribes in exchange for directing trading business to a now-defunct New York broker-dealer.

Maria de los Angeles Gonzalez de Hernandez, who was a senior official in Venezuela’s state economic development bank, pleaded guilty in federal court in New York to charges, that included money laundering, as part of a deal to cooperate with U.S. prosecutors in their the ongoing probe of Direct Access Partners LLC.

Prosecutors had previously said Gonzalez, 55, received $5 million in kickbacks directed to her by employees at the New York firm, whose parent company filed for bankruptcy after charges were first unveiled in May.

Direct Access in exchange earned more than $60 million in fees on bond trading business Gonzalez directed to it from her bank, Caracas-based Banco de Desarrollo Económico y Social de Venezuela, known as Bandes, authorities say.

“I knew directing business from Bandes to the broker-dealer was wrong or was illegal,” Gonzalez said through a Spanish translator at a court hearing in Manhattan.

Gonzalez was arrested in May in Miami along with two former Direct Access employees, Tomas Alberto Clarke Bethancourt and Jose Alejandro Hurtado.

Clarke, Hurtado and a third former Direct Access employee, Ernesto Lujan, pleaded guilty in August to charges including conspiracy to violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and the Travel Act and to commit money laundering.

Gonzalez pleaded guilty to conspiracy to violate the Travel Act and commit money laundering, as well as two substantive counts tied to each of those violations.

She agreed to cooperate with U.S. authorities in their ongoing investigation of the scheme, which prosecutors say ran from 2009 through 2012.

Letters dated in September and filed in a civil lawsuit launched earlier this month by Direct Access against its former chief executive, Benito Chinea, refer to a grand jury subpoena.

Derrelle Janey, a lawyer for Direct Access at Gottlieb & Gordon, said the firm was cooperating with the investigation. A lawyer for Chinea did not respond to a request for comment.

At her plea hearing, Gonzalez said she was not the only employee at Bandes receiving money from Direct Access, which she did not refer to by name.

Gonzalez said she referred payments to a second unnamed Bandes employee to help facilitate the scheme.

A civil forfeiture action filed in May in conjunction with the criminal case had similarly cited a second Bandes official involved in the scheme.

At the earlier guilty pleas by the traders in August, Clarke said he was aware of payments that went to a third banker at San Cristobal-based Banfoandes, which the Venezuela government shut down in 2009.

A separate lawsuit by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission against five people with ties to Direct Access, including Clarke and Lujan, remains pending.

The case is U.S. v. Gonzalez, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 13-cr-901.

Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Editing by Bob Burgdorfer

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