November 20, 2018 / 1:36 PM / 25 days ago

U.S. prosecutors accuse Venezuela media mogul of bribery, money laundering

Nov 20 (Reuters) - The U.S. Justice Department has accused a Venezuelan television mogul of bribing officials in the South American country and helping them launder the funds through assets in the United States, according to charges made public this week.

Raul Gorrin, owner of Venezuelan television channel Globovision and insurance firm Seguros La Vitalicia, was charged in an indictment unsealed on Monday in federal court in West Palm Beach, Florida, with violating U.S. anti-corruption laws in efforts to win contracts to carry out currency exchange operations for the government.

The indictment was filed under seal in August after prosecutors said it was necessary to protect the “integrity of the ongoing investigation.”

Gorrin was declared a fugitive in September, and the charges were unsealed on Monday after prosecutors said it would help law enforcement arrest him, court records showed.

Venezuela’s exchange controls, created under late President Hugo Chavez, have for 15 years sold heavily subsidized dollars through state currency agencies or government auctions.

But dollars on the black market have fetched at least double and sometimes 10 times more, allowing the well-connected to buy cut-rate dollars and resell them at a huge profit.

The mechanism has been one of the principal forms of illicit enrichment under the ruling Socialist Party. U.S. federal prosecutors over the last year have issued a string of indictments of Venezuelan officials for using the U.S. financial system to launder the proceeds of those operations.

According to the indictment, between 2008 and 2017, Gorrin facilitated more than $150 million in bribe payments to multiple officials in Venezuela’s treasury for the right to participate in the currency deals. Much of the money was wired from Swiss bank accounts to accounts in Florida, prosecutors said.

Gorrin, 49, allegedly also bought officials jets, yachts, “champion horses” and luxury watches in Florida and Texas.

A biography on Gorrin’s personal website describes him as a salsa-loving “humanist,” lawyer and businessman. He bought a 25 percent stake in an insurer that would later be known as La Vitalicia in 2008, 10 years after Chavez came to power.

Globovision overhauled coverage and softened criticism of Chavez's successor, Nicolas Maduro, after Gorrin purchased the channel in 2013, reporters said at the time. (reut.rs/2Ag9lMv)

Neither Globovision nor La Vitalicia responded to requests for comment. Gorrin’s defense attorney, Howard Srebnick, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Gorrin’s whereabouts were not immediately clear. He faces a maximum penalty of 45 years in prison if found guilty.

In a separate case last month, a former finance executive at Venezuela’s state-run oil company PDVSA pled guilty to taking bribes and attempting to launder $12 million of the illicit payments, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern district of Florida said. (Editing by Bernadette Baum)

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