Ex-Venezuelan official pleads guilty in U.S. corruption case

(Reuters) - A former Venezuelan official on Thursday pleaded guilty to taking part in a scheme involving bribes paid by U.S. companies to Venezuelan officials to secure energy contracts and speed up payments on outstanding invoices, U.S. prosecutors said.

Cesar Rincon, a former manager at Bariven, the procurement unit of Venezuela’s state-owned energy company Petroleos de Venezuela SA (PDVSA) [PDVSA.UL], entered his plea to one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering before District Judge Kenneth Hoyt in Houston, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Hoyt also entered a judgment against Rincon of $7 million, the amount of the bribe payments he admitted to taking, prosecutors said. Rincon is scheduled to be sentenced on July 9.

“He feels that by admitting his guilt, he has relieved himself of a significant burden,” Rincon’s lawyer, Fred Schwartz, said of his client’s plea.

Rincon, 50, was one of five former Venezuelan officials charged in an indictment unsealed in February. The case emerged from a U.S. investigation into what prosecutors have called a $1 billion bribery plot involving payments to PDVSA officials.

In entering his guilty plea, Rincon admitted that he took bribes from Roberto Rincon of Texas, who was president of Tradequip Services & Marine, and Abraham Jose Shiera Bastidas of Florida, who was manager of Vertix Instrumentos, according to prosecutors.

Cesar Rincon also admitted that he conspired with Roberto Rincon and Shiera to launder the bribes through transactions including wire transfers to accounts in the United States and Switzerland in other people’s names.

Both Roberto Rincon and Shiera pleaded guilty in 2016 to bribery charges in the same court and are awaiting sentencing. Eight other people have pleaded guilty in connection with the probe.

Others charged in February’s indictment included Nervis Villalobos, a former Venezuelan vice minister of energy; Rafael Reiter, who worked as PDVSA’s head of security and loss prevention; and Luis Carlos de Leon, a former official at a state-run electric company.

Those three, like Rincon, were arrested in Spain in October at the request of U.S. authorities. De Leon was extradited to the United States in March and has pleaded not guilty, according to court records. Villalobos and Reiter remain in Spanish custody, the Justice Department said.

Alejandro Isturiz Chiesa, who was an assistant to Bariven’s president, was also charged in the indictment. He remains at large, according to the Justice Department.

Reporting By Brendan Pierson in New York, Editing by Rosalba O’Brien and Cynthia Osterman