By Jay Weaver
A former national treasurer in the socialist government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was sentenced to 10 years in prison Tuesday by a U.S. judge for his central role in a $1 billion bribery and money-laundering scheme that enabled him to acquire luxury real estate and other assets in South Florida.
Alejandro Andrade, 54, sold access to the Venezuelan government’s lucrative foreign-currency exchanges both before and after Chávez’s death in 2013, enriching himself and an elite circle of other senior officials and a prominent businessman, according to court records.
U.S. District Judge Robin Rosenberg imposed the maximum sentence for Andrade’s money-laundering conspiracy conviction in West Palm Beach federal court, rejecting a proposal by his defense attorneys to give him seven years in prison for accepting responsibility for his crime in a plea deal. The judge did not impose a fine because Andrade has no money to pay one. He was allowed to surrender to prison on Feb. 25 instead of immediately because he has been assisting federal authorities in the massive corruption and money-laundering investigation.
Andrade apologized to the judge, his family and the Venezuelan people for his crime, and then described how he became involved in a “movement” led by Chávez that he believed would benefit his country. Soon, however, the national treasurer acknowledged that he betrayed the public’s trust.
“I made some very bad choices when I was treasurer, and for that I am very sorry from the bottom of my heart,” said Andrade, who served as the top financial official in Venezuela’s government from 2007 to 2010 before moving with his family to South Florida in 2014. “To this day, I am convinced the decision I made [to cooperate] is the right one.”
Before his sentencing, Andrade owned several properties in the wealthy equestrian community of Wellington in the western part of Palm Beach County. In a $1 billion forfeiture judgment, the U.S. attorney’s office and Homeland Security Investigations have begun the process of taking those tainted properties, along with his vast collection of high-priced cars, show-jumping horses and watches.
At Tuesday’s sentencing, federal prosecutor Vanessa Snyder said Andrade conspired with three other key players in the money-laundering ring by giving them access to the Venezuelan government’s favorable dollar-to-bolivar currency exchange. Snyder said the scheme generated about $2.4 billion in illicit profits for Andrade’s three co-conspirators and they agreed to share half of their money with Andrade while keeping it in European and U.S. banks.
“Mr. Andrade abused the trust of the people of Venezuela,” Snyder said, describing how his crime contributed to the longstanding economic crisis in the South American country. “The amount of money he agreed to receive was staggering.”
But Andrade’s defense attorneys, Curtis Miner and Bob Martinez, said the co-conspirators controlled the bank accounts and that their client received about $70 million in bribes — not $1 billion.
Andrade, who pleaded guilty to a money-laundering conspiracy charge last December, has provided insider information to Snyder and fellow prosecutor Michael Nadler to assist them in building a sprawling criminal case against some of Venezuela’s richest people. Among them: TV network tycoon Raúl Gorrín, 50, who was indicted last Monday, one day before the case against Andrade was unsealed in federal court in West Palm Beach.
The indictment charges Gorrín, a politically connected Caracas businessman, with conspiring to bribe Venezuelan officials and commit money laundering by hiding embezzled government funds in South Florida and New York real estate over the past decade.
The international money-laundering scheme allegedly led by Gorrín transpired over a period of extreme economic hardship for everyday Venezuelans. Oil rich and once wealthy, Venezuela is staggering under an economic collapse that has led to hyperinflation and food and medicine shortages. More than three million people have fled the country in recent years, according to the United Nations.
The national political coordinator for Venezuela’s opposition Voluntad Popular party, Carlos Vecchio, said Andrade’s web of corruption is tied directly to current President Nicolás Maduro and his wife, Cilia Flores.
“All of them are responsible for the deep crisis that Venezuela is living through,” Vecchio said in a statement, adding that the one billion dollars that Andrade amassed “is money that was stolen from the Venezuelan people.”
The South Florida probe of Andrade was first reported by the Miami Herald and el Nuevo Herald in March. Andrade, a former Chávez bodyguard who rose to become national treasurer, faced up to 10 years in prison under his plea agreement — substantially less prison time than Gorrín now faces as a fugitive wanted by federal authorities in Miami.
Andrade was staying at his equestrian farm in Wellington while assisting the feds in the case against Gorrín and others. In mid-November, federal agents seized his Wellington properties, including 17 prized show horses.
The warmblood horses, with names like Bonjovi, Hardrock Z and Tinker Bell, were imported from various parts of Europe, court records show. Andrade’s son, Emanuel, used them to compete in show-jumping events in South Florida and other parts of the world.
Agents also seized Andrade’s fleet of luxury vehicles, from a 2017 Mercedes-Benz GLS 550 to a 2015 Bentley Continental Convertible, along with numerous U.S. and Swiss bank accounts, and a vast collection of high-end watches.
Andrade, Gorrín and other associates in Venezuela’s government, banking and business sectors are accused of enriching themselves by capitalizing on favorable foreign currency exchanges and concealing their staggering profits in European and U.S. bank accounts and investments, according to Gorrín’s indictment. Andrade used his official position to give Gorrín access to the government’s preferred exchange rates to maximize profits on currency transactions. The funds to fuel the scheme were generated by the national treasury’s issuance of bonds.
Gorrín is accused of paying hundreds of millions of dollars in bribes to Andrade and another former high-ranking official in the national treasury office by funneling the money to them through a Venezuelan banker in the Dominican Republic. The banker, Gabriel Arturo Jimenez Aray, 50, controlled the Dominican bank with Gorrín.
Jimenez was charged with conspiracy to commit money laundering earlier this year, pleaded guilty in March and awaits sentencing on Thursday as he cooperates with federal authorities. He faces up to 10 years in prison. His defense attorney, Marissel Descalzo, declined to comment.
In addition to wiring millions through Swiss and U.S. banks to those two former high-ranking Venezuelan treasury officials, Gorrín paid for an array of lavish expenses for Andrade, including three jets, a yacht, champion show horses and high-end watches, according to Gorrín’s indictment and other court records. He even paid some of Andrade’s veterinarian bills.
Gorrín’s indictment and the cases against Andrade and Jimenez are unrelated to a $1.2 billion South Florida money-laundering case filed in July that charged nine defendants, including some close to President Maduro, with embezzling vast sums of money from Venezuela’s national oil company and washing it through foreign currency exchanges to inflate profits. Millions in ill-gotten funds were invested in South Florida’s real estate market, including luxury high-rise condos and waterfront mansions in the Cocoplum section of Coral Gables.
Two defendants in that case — Gorrín’s personal banker Matthias Krull and former Venezuelan national oil-company executive Abraham Ortega — have pleaded guilty to money-laundering conspiracy charges and are cooperating with the U.S. Attorney’s Office and Homeland Security investigations.
Gorrín, owner of the Globovisión network in Caracas, has not been charged in that case. He is suspected of steering $600 million from the country’s state-owned oil company, PDVSA, to a European bank to enrich himself, Maduro’s three stepsons and other members of Venezuela’s political elite, according to court records and multiple sources familiar with the federal probe in Miami.
Maduro’s stepsons and the president himself are also under investigation in that case.