Miami man pleads guilty to helping Venezuela skirt sanctions

March 8, 2022 GMT

MIAMI (AP) — A Miami businessman has pleaded guilty to receiving payments from Venezuela’s government and servicing the country’s fleet of Russian fighter jets in violation of U.S. sanctions.

A visibly nervous Jorge Nobrega admitted in federal court Tuesday that as part of the conspiracy to violate the U.S. sanctions he was paid the equivalent of around $3.5 million by state-run oil giant PDVSA into an account he opened at a bank in Portugal.

As part of his guilty plea, he said the payments were wired from accounts belonging to Tipco , a major Thai asphalt company that is a longtime customer of PDVSA. The publicly traded Tipco, whose role helping Venezuela skirt U.S. sanctions was the subject of an Associated Press investigation in 2020, has not been charged.

The case against the Venezuelan-American dual national stands out from a bevy of other ongoing criminal investigations focused on the South American country because it’s one of the first to look into the dealings of Venezuela’s military, a key plank of support for President Nicolás Maduro.

In announcing charges last year, prosecutors said that the 52-year-old Nobrega had been on several Venezuelan air bases, flown in military aircraft and had friends inside the military. His Florida-registered company, Achabal Technologies, sold Venezuela’s military a suppressant foam to insulate fuel tanks on its fleet of Sukhoi combat aircraft to prevent them from exploding under enemy gunfire.

In a recorded meeting with an unidentified informant, Nobrega allegedly bragged about meeting with Venezuelan Defense Minister Vladimir Padrino Lopez and likened the technique to a form of “dialysis” that would save Venezuela the expense of sending the fleet in Russia for servicing.

Nobrega was owed money by PDVSA for work he did for the oil giant before the U.S. imposed sanctions in January 2019 seeking to force Maduro’s removal. But the payments were conditioned upon him providing new services to the Venezuelan military.

At the direction of co-conspirators, he opened a bank account in Portugal from which he received the payments from Tipco on PDVSA’s behalf between March 2019 in March 2020. About half of the amount received he later transferred to Achabal’s bank accounts in Miami. Documents obtained by the AP show that two other U.S.- registered vendors not affiliated with Nobrega received an additional $4.1 million in the same manner.

U.S. sanctions against Venezuela make it illegal for U.S. firms — and those who assist them — from doing business with PDVSA except with a license from the U.S. Treasury Department. Additionally, any export of military equipment or services requires the approval of the State Department, which Achabal didn’t have.

Nobrega faces a maximum of five years in prison.