MIAMI (AP) — Authorities in Venezuela have brought corruption charges against a businessman who is a fugitive in a separate U.S. money laundering case targeting a top ally of the country’s president, Nicolás Maduro.
Alvaro Pulido, wearing an orange jumpsuit and handcuffed, was among a group of seven Venezuelan officials and businessmen escorted by a masked security agent on their way to an initial judicial hearing in Caracas in images shared Friday by Venezuela’s government.
The men were taken into custody as part of a sprawling investigation into corruption in the state-run oil company PDVSA focused on the payment of massive bribes in exchange for lucrative contracts to move tankers of Venezuelan crude sanctioned by the U.S.
Pulido stands out among the more than 50 alleged schemers already arrested because of his relationship to Alex Saab.
The two Colombians were long-time business partners who made a fortune selling food and other items to Venezuela’s socialist government over the past decade. The two were criminally charged together in 2019 by federal prosecutors in Miami for allegedly siphoning off $350 million from state contracts to build low income housing. Saab was arrested on a U.S. warrant a year later while en route to Iran.
Pulido’s arrest in Venezuela, which had been rumored for weeks but not confirmed until now, has no direct relationship to the U.S. criminal case.
But it nonetheless could complicate Saab’s argument that he is a Venezuelan diplomat entitled to immunity from prosecution in the U.S., said John Feeley, a former U.S. Ambassador to Panama with decades of experience working in Latin America. That issue is set to be
“With Pulido’s arrest, Saab’s defense begins to crumble,” Feeley said. “He will now have a hard time insisting on diplomatic status when his business partner is facing corruption charges in Caracas.”
A federal district judge in Miami has already ruled that Saab is unable to shield himself from criminal charges and must stand trial. His lawyers have appealed the decision and argue that documents and letters he was purportedly carrying at the time of his arrest during a refueling stop in Cape Verde prove he was conducting official business on behalf of Maduro’s government.
A group pushing for Saab’s immediate release issued a statement in Caracas expressing “total support” for the latest crackdown and distancing the “diplomat” from Pulido.
It was not immediately possible to locate an attorney for Pulido.
But Joe Schuster, an attorney for Saab, said the Venezuelan investigation into Pulido had “absolutely nothing” to do with his client.
“It is also our understanding that the government of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela continues to fully support Special Envoy Saab,” the Miami-based attorney said, referring to Saab’s purported diplomatic status as an intermediary in trade deals between Iran and Venezuela.
Corruption has long plagued Venezuela. The OPEC nation was the fourth-most corrupt in the world in the latest rankings by Transparency International.
Opportunities for graft have proliferated as a result of U.S. sanctions, which has scared away more established oil companies and opened the door for murky middlemen who purchase the crude at a steep discount and transport their valuable cargo on so-called ghost tankers that hide their locations from satellite tracking systems.
___ Associated Press writer Jorge Rueda in Caracas, Venezuela, contributed to this report.
Joshua Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman
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