Andorra charges Venezuelan ex-officials for money laundering

A judge in Andorra has charged 28 people, including former officials in Venezuela, with money laundering offenses over a kickbacks-for-contracts scheme that plundered $2 billion from the Venezuelan state oil company between 2007 and 2012.

Investigating magistrate Canolic Mingorance issued the indictments on Thursday, wrapping up a five-year investigation into opaque deposits in the Banca Privada d'Andorra, or BPA, according to court documents seen by The Associated Press.

Among those accused are nine people from Andorra, five from Spain and 14 Venezuelans, including former deputy ministers Nervis Villalobos and Javier Alvarado, as well as Luis Carlos de Leon-Perez, a former official at a state-run electric company in Caracas.

The judge places Diego Salazar, the high-powered cousin of Venezuela's longtime oil czar Rafael Ramirez, at the top of the alleged scheme.

Ramirez, a close aide of late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, was energy minister and ran Petroleos de Venezuela SA, or PDVSA, from 2004 to 2013, before becoming Venezuela's envoy to the United Nations until last year, when he fell out with the country's current leadership, resigned and went into hiding.

The Andorran judge says the group received illegal payments from companies, many of them from China, that were rewarded with contracts related to the oil industry. The Andorra-based bank's management then hid the profits in shell companies in various countries, but the money was eventually made available in BPA accounts.

The group "joined forces to control the public bids of PDVSA and the construction of energy-related infrastructure" contracted by the company and its affiliates, the judge wrote in the indictment. She added that its members were so close to "the circles of power of the state" that some of them were informed when early notices of the investigation were shared with Venezuela by Interpol.

In 2015, Andorra intervened in the private bank after the United States Treasury Department accused it of laundering money from groups in China, Russia and Venezuela.

Since then, the tiny mountainous country of 75,000 has taken steps to shake off its reputation as a tax haven, scrapping bank secrecy laws and passing legislation to meet international standards.

The Diari d'Andorra, a local newspaper, said that none of the Venezuelans indicted in the case showed up on Thursday in the capital, Andorra La Vella, to receive the court's notice.

De Leon has pleaded guilty to money laundering and other charges in the U.S., where judicial authorities are also investigating the bribery scheme within and around PDVSA. A court in Houston is scheduled to deliver a sentence later this month.

Spain agreed to extradite Villalobos as part of the same case, but Ramirez's former deputy at PDVSA can't be sent to the U.S. until he is tried by Spanish courts in two separate cases.

Alvarado's whereabouts is not known, while Salazar has been in pre-trial detention in Venezuela since the country's top prosecutor there ordered his arrest late last year.