Miami Man Pleads Guilty to Sending $1 Million in Bribes to Ecuadorian Oil Officials

September 19, 2018

Septiembre, 12 2018 (Miami New Times)

The U.S. government recently launched a campaign to crack down on money laundering and corruption in Latin America’s state-run oil companies, including the one in Venezuela.

Now the target has moved a bit south and west. A Miami man yesterday pleaded guilty to trying to funnel more than $1 million to an official at Petroecuador, Ecuador’s state-run oil company. The feds say José Larrea, age 40, and another Miamian, Frank Roberto Chatburn Ripalda, hatched a scheme to wire money between multiple U.S. bank accounts in order to win government contracts in Ecuador. Larrea, a financial adviser, also allegedly falsified documents on behalf of an oil contractor working with Petroecuador. Larrea is the fourth person to plead guilty as part of the scheme. (Chatburn has pleaded not guilty, and his case remains open.)

This past April, federal prosecutors said Chatburn sought out Larrea’s help in funneling money to an unnamed Ecuadorian official in order to make sure his company, GalileoEnergy S.A., retained some lucrative government contracts. The feds say Chatburn and Larrea several years ago helped Petroecuador officials set up shell accounts to receive bribes. Then, from 2013 to 2015, prosecutors said, Chatburn and Larrea repeatedly wired money from various accounts, including from banks in the Cayman Islands, to the officials’ shell accounts.

The feds listed six instances in which Chatburn and Ripalda allegedly wired money from the Caymans to both U.S. and Panamanian shell accounts. In multiple cases, the feds say, the money passed through “intermediary companies” in Miami. In one case, Chatburn and Larrea sent nearly $650,000 to a bank account “held in the name of a law firm based in Miami, Florida.” (The law firm isn’t named in court documents.) In November 2014, the feds say, the co-conspirators met at an unnamed Miami restaurant to discuss how the bribery scheme was turning out.

“Between in or around 2013 and in or around 2016, PetroEcuador paid Galileo approximately $27.8 million on contracts that it obtained and retained through bribes into accounts” designated by Chatburn and Larrea, the indictment stated.

The latest guilty plea comes after a slew of major charges were filed in Miami against allegedly corrupt Latin American officials. Earlier this year, the feds unsealed a gigantic case against a series of defendants accused of funneling more than $1 billion from Venezuela’s state-run oil firm, PDVSA, and into Miami real estate. The Miami Herald reported that Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro is a potential target in the probe. (New Times and the Houston Press in 2017 published a joint feature about Venezuelan “boligarchs” funneling money into Miami and Houston while Venezuela’s economy collapsed.)

And in a separate probe, Colombia’s former head of government anti-corruption, Gustavo Moreno Rivera, pleaded guilty in August to taking a $132,000 cash bribe in a Dolphin Mall bathroom.

As for the Ecuadorian case, federal officials are now trying to seize multiple properties tied to Chatburn and Larrea, including two owned by Chatburn on West Rivo Alto Drive in Miami Beach and South Bayshore Drive in Coconut Grove. Larrea, who is scheduled for sentencing in November, faces up to 20 years in prison.