Venezuela bribery witness gets light sentence in wake of Biden's pardoning of Maduro ally

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File - Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro and Alex Saab stand in an embrace during an event marking the anniversary of the 1958 coup that overthrew dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez, in Caracas, Venezuela, Jan. 23, 2024. A Venezuelan businessman who helped hide almost $17 million in bribe payments by an ally of President Nicolas Maduro was sentenced to six months in prison Friday, Feb. 16, 2024, by a federal judge. (AP Photo/Jesus Vargas, File)

MIAMI – A Venezuelan businessman who helped hide almost $17 million in bribe payments by an ally of President Nicolas Maduro was sentenced to six months in prison Friday by a federal judge who expressed frustration that his cooperation with law enforcement was undone by President Joe Biden’s recent pardon of a top U.S. criminal target.

Orlando Contreras had been working with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration since 2019 to investigate corruption in the South American nation.

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As part of that assistance, prosecutors said, he made several dangerous trips to Venezuela to gather evidence against businessman Alex Saab and former Gov. Jose Vielma.

Saab and Vielma had both been targeted by a secret spying program exposed by The Associated Press in which the DEA sent undercover informants into Venezuela to surreptitiously record and bring criminal charges against Maduro’s inner circle.

Both men were later indicted in separate corruption cases. But while Vielma remains a fugitive, the U.S. freed Saab in December as part of a swap for 10 Americans and a Pentagon defense contractor who had been imprisoned in Venezuela.

U.S. District Court Judge Rodolfo Ruiz said he was persuaded to grant Contreras even more leniency than the government recommended because of the risks he took in pursuit of Saab — once a top criminal defendant but now someone who, ensconced in Venezuela, is unlikely to ever face justice in the U.S. again.

“Everybody skipped town," Ruiz said, "and he’s the only one who decided to stay and face justice.”

Saab, 52, was welcomed home as a hero in December by Maduro and immediately launched into a tirade against the U.S., claiming he had been tortured while awaiting extradition from Cape Verde in a bid to make him turn on Maduro.

His release was seen as a major concession to Maduro as the Biden administration seeks to improve relations with the OPEC nation and pave the way for freer elections. That goal appears more elusive than ever as Maduro refuses to lift a ban on his main rival, Maria Corina Machado, from seeking public office and newly arrests opponents.

Contreras, in pleading guilty last year, admitted to receiving nearly $17 million between 2016 and 2019 to facilitate bribes made in exchange for $1.6 billion in government contracts awarded to Saab and a partner to import medicine and food boxes at a time of widespread hunger in the country. As part of the alleged scheme, the co-conspirators inflated the prices of basic staples charged to Venezuela’s government, using the extra amount to pay kickbacks to officials.

Contreras said he served as Vielma’s intermediary, transferring about $11 million to offshore accounts at the direction of the then-governor. He kept the remaining amount for himself but is now forfeiting that to the U.S. government. To date, he has handed over $650,000, two luxury watches and is liquidating another $100,000, his attorneys said in court Friday.

“The government wants to punish one of the few people who actually cooperated, while the target faces no punishment and receives acclaim in Venezuela,” one of Contreras’ attorneys, Martin Steinberg, said in arguing for an even lighter sentence of house arrest.

Contreras broke down in tears as he recounted two grueling kidnapping episodes in Venezuela in which he said he was beaten and suffered sexual abuse — wounds he said would be reopened if he were locked away.

“I live every day afraid that it could happen to me again,” he told the judge.

However, Ruiz said at least some prison time was warranted to deter others from participating in such sophisticated foreign corruption schemes.

Attorneys for Contreras described his cooperation as “extraordinary,” spanning more than four years and involving DEA-directed phone calls to targets and at least two risky trips to Venezuela to advance U.S. criminal investigations.

However, the full extent of his cooperation is unknown, as both prosecutors’ account and a 76-page sentencing memorandum filed by Contreras’ attorneys remain under seal.

“It’s fair to say the corroborating information he provided was very useful,” federal prosecutor Alexander Kramer said Friday in court. “He traveled to Venezuela to try and cooperate of his own volition. It was not requested by the government.”

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