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February 27, 2019Washington, DC, United StatesFinancial Crimes

2 Florida businessmen charged in Houston with foreign bribery in Venezuelan scheme

WASHINGTON — Two Florida businessmen were charged in an indictment unsealed Tuesday on foreign bribery, wire fraud and money laundering charges for their alleged roles in a scheme to corruptly secure business advantages from Venezuela’s state-owned and state-controlled energy company, Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA).

This indictment was announced by the following agency heads: Assistant Attorney General Brian A. Benczkowski of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, U.S. Attorney Ryan K. Patrick of the Southern District of Texas, and Special Agent in Charge Mark Dawson of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) Houston.

This ongoing investigation is being conducted by HSI Houston with assistance from HSI Boston and HSI Miami.

Rafael Enrique Pinto Franceschi (Pinto), 40, of Miami, Florida, and Franz Herman Muller Huber, 68, of Weston, Florida, were charged in a five-count indictment returned in the Southern District of Texas on Feb. 21 and unsealed Feb. 26. Pinto and Muller are each charged with one count of conspiracy to violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), one count of conspiracy to commit wire fraud, two counts of wire fraud, and one count of conspiracy to launder money.

The indictment alleges that – beginning in or around 2009 and continuing through at least 2013 – Pinto, a sales representative for a Miami-based PDVSA supplier (“Company A” in the indictment), and Muller, the President of Company A, conspired with others to bribe three PDVSA officials in exchange for providing assistance in connection with Company A’s PDVSA business. According to the indictment, in exchange for bribe payments, the PDVSA officials allegedly assisted Company A in obtaining additional PDVSA contracts, inside information and payment on past-due invoices. The indictment alleges that when Company A received a payment from PDVSA, Pinto alerted one of the PDVSA officials who, in turn, created a fictitious invoice from a Panamanian shell company charging Company A three percent of whatever payment Company A had received from PDVSA and directing Company A to send payment to a Swiss bank account. According to the criminal charges, the false invoice was sent to Muller, who ensured that the invoices were paid.

The wire fraud charges against Pinto and Muller are based on allegations that, in addition to directing Company A money to the three PDVSA officials to benefit Company A, Pinto and Muller received kickbacks in connection with the scheme. In total, Pinto is alleged to have received over $985,000 in kickback payments, and Muller over $258,000.

Two of the three officials that Pinto and Muller are accused of bribing – Jose Camacho and Ivan Guedez, both of Houston – have already pleaded guilty in connection with the case and are pending sentencing.

An indictment is merely an allegation and the defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

With the unsealing of this indictment, the Justice Department has announced charges against 21 individuals, 15 of whom have pleaded guilty as part of a larger ongoing investigation by the U.S. government into bribery at PDVSA.

Trial Attorneys Sarah E. Edwards and Sonali D. Patel of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section, and Assistant U.S. Attorneys John P. Pearson and Robert S. Johnson of the Southern District of Texas, are prosecuting this case. Assistant U.S. Attorney Kristine Rollison of the Southern District of Texas is handling the forfeiture aspects of this case. The following agencies also provided assistance: Criminal Division’s Office of International Affairs, the Swiss Federal Office of Justice, and the Cayman Mutual Legal Assistance Authority and Cayman Office of the Director of Public Prosecution.

Updated: 02/28/2019