MIAMI (AP) — The former nurse of late Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has been found guilty of money laundering in connection to bribes paid by a billionaire media mogul to green light lucrative currency transactions when she served as the country’s national treasurer.
A jury in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, deliberated for just a few hours Tuesday before finding Claudia Diaz and her husband, Adrían Velasquez, guilty of five of the six counts detailed in a 2020 indictment accusing them of taking at least $4.2 million in bribes.
The couple, who will be sentenced in February, face a maximum of 20 years in prison for each of the criminal counts.
The jury trial was seen as a critical test of federal prosecutors’ ability to hold accountable so-called Venezuelan kleptocrats for fleecing the oil rich nation.
The U.S. Department of Justice has aggressively investigated corruption in Venezuela’s socialist government, taking advantage of the U.S.’ unique position as the destination of choice until recently for insiders to stash their ill-gotten gains. But Diaz was was the first former senior official to actually fight charges and had she managed to walk free it could’ve drastically undermined that decade-long effort.
According to the indictment, Diaz and Velasquez received payments from companies controlled by their co-defendant, fugitive Venezuelan media mogul Raul Gorrin, to accounts in Miami allegedly used to pay for the couple’s otherwise unexplained lavish lifestyle.
The government’s case relied heavily on the testimony of one of Diaz’s predecessors as Treasurer, Alejandro Andrade, who took the witness stand to testify that the kickback scheme he struck with Gorrin continued under Diaz.
Like Diaz, Andrade, a former presidential security officer, leveraged a personal connection with Chavez to rise through the ranks of the army and the Venezuelan state, amassing a huge fortune almost overnight.
In 2021, he was released from prison after serving less than half of a 10-year sentence for his role in a massive scheme to siphon millions from state coffers. As part of his plea agreement, he forfeited more than $260 million in cash and assets, including an oceanfront Palm Beach mansion, luxury vehicles, show-jumping horses and several Rolex and Hublot watches.
Attorneys for the couple expressed their disappointment with the verdict.
“We will continue to fight for our clients,” Marissel Descalzo and Andrew Feldman said in a statement.
The trial took place as normally hostile relations between the U.S. and Venezuelan are starting to ease after the Trump-era policy of “maximum pressure” to remove President Nicolás Maduro has stalled.
Recently the Biden administration loosened crushing oil sanctions against the OPEC nation, allowing U.S. oil company Chevron for the first time in more than three years to resume production to support fledgling negotiations with the opposition.
But ongoing criminal investigations against Venezuelan insiders remain closely watched in south Florida, home to millions of Venezuelans, Cubans and Nicaraguans fleeing leftist rule in their homelands.
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