Oilman catches sentencing break for exposing Venezuela graft

MIAMI (AP) — A Florida-based oilman who pleaded guilty for taking part in a $1 billion conspiracy to pay bribes to Venezuelan officials received a major break in sentencing after providing standout cooperation to U.S. prosecutors investigating corruption at the country’s state-run oil monopoly.

Abraham Shiera was one of the first witnesses to come forward and cooperate with a sprawling, multi-district federal probe into PDVSA, as the oil giant is known, following his arrest in 2016.

Judge Gray Miller on Thursday sentenced Shiera, who was born in Venezuela, to 12 months and a single day in prison — well below the statutory maximum of 10 years he faced after pleading guilty to two criminal counts of corrupting a foreign official. The light sentence means he’s unlikely to serve much if any time behind bars.

Shiera and his business partner, fellow Venezuelan oil magnate Roberto Rincon, were accused of paying bribes in exchange for lucrative contracts to build electricity generators for PDVSA at a time Venezuela was suffering widespread power outages.

In exchange for rigging seemingly competitive bidding processes, the two paid bribes to several officials in the form of hundreds of thousands of dollars in wire transfers to overseas bank accounts, a $14,502 hotel reservation at the ritzy Fontainebleau Hotel in Miami and, in one case, a bottle of whisky.

It’s unknown exactly whom Shiera testified against as part of his cooperation. Most records in the case — even the government’s memo seeking leniency filed this week — have been sealed for years.

But in the years since his arrest, numerous other Venezuelan insiders, including a deputy energy minister and multiple officials working for PDVSA and its affiliates, have been indicted on similar charges.

Judge Miller in going below even the government’s recommendation of a 55% sentencing reduction recognized Shiera what prosecutors called Shiera’s “platinum” cooperation, according to a person in the courtroom who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the proceedings.

One of Shiera and Rincon’s bribe recipients referred to in a related indictment as “Official B” is Venezuela’s former oil czar, Rafael Ramirez, a U.S. official told The Associated Press in 2018.

Ramirez, who has not been criminally charged, has denied any wrongdoing and says that accusations of corruption are being promoted by his political opponents as well as overzealous U.S. prosecutors seeking to dismantle the Bolivarian revolution started by the late Hugo Chavez.

While professing loyalty to the leftist ideals of his former boss, Ramirez is a staunch critic of Chavez’s handpicked successor, Nicolas Maduro, and has been living in exile in Italy after quitting as the country’s ambassador to the United Nations in 2017.

“Mr. Shiera is happy to put this matter behind him,” his attorney, Daniel Fetterman, a partner at Kasowitz Benson Torres, told the AP.

Rincon is scheduled to be sentenced in December.

Follow Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman

Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.