NEW YORK, USA -- Three employees of a New York-based US broker-dealer have pleaded guilty for their roles in bribery schemes involving two state economic development banks in Venezuela.
Ernesto Lujan, Jose Alejandro Hurtado and Tomas Alberto Clarke Bethancourt pleaded guilty in New York federal court to conspiring to violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), to violate the Travel Act and to commit money laundering, as well as substantive counts of these offences.
These charges relate to a scheme to bribe a foreign official named Maria de los Angeles Gonzalez de Hernandez at Banco de Desarrollo Económico y Social de Venezuela (BANDES), a state economic development bank in Venezuela, in exchange for receiving trading business from BANDES.
Lujan, Hurtado and Clarke each also pleaded guilty to an additional charge of conspiring to violate the FCPA in connection with a similar scheme to bribe a foreign official employed by Banfoandes, another state economic development bank in Venezuela, and to conspiring to obstruct an examination by the US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) of the New York-based broker-dealer where all three defendants had worked, to conceal the true facts of the broker-dealer’s relationship with BANDES.
Lujan, 50, and Clarke, 43, entered their guilty pleas on Thursday before US Magistrate Judge James Francis, and Hurtado, 38, pleaded guilty on Friday, also before Judge Francis. The men each pleaded guilty to the same six offences and face a maximum penalty of five years in prison on each count except money laundering, which carries a maximum penalty of 20 years in prison.
Sentencing for Lujan and Clarke is scheduled for February 11, 2014, and Hurtado is scheduled for sentencing on March 6, 2014.
According to the information filed against Lujan, Hurtado and Clarke last week, the criminal complaints previously filed, and statements made during the plea proceedings, Lujan, Clarke and Hurtado worked or were associated with the broker-dealer, principally through its Miami offices. In 2008, the broker-dealer established a group called the Global Markets Group, which included Lujan, Clarke and Hurtado, and which offered fixed income trading services to institutional clients.
One of the broker-dealer’s clients was BANDES, which operated under the direction of the Venezuelan Ministry of Finance. The Venezuelan government had a majority ownership interest in BANDES and provided it with substantial funding. Gonzalez was an official at BANDES and oversaw the development bank’s overseas trading activity. At her direction, BANDES conducted substantial trading through the broker-dealer. Most of the trades executed by the broker-dealer on behalf of BANDES involved fixed-income investments for which the broker-dealer charged the bank a mark-up on purchases and a mark-down on sales.
The broker-dealer also conducted business with Banfoandes, another state development bank in Venezuela that, along with its 2009 successor Banco Bicentenario, operated under the direction of the Venezuelan Ministry of Finance. Banfoandes acted as a financial agent of the Venezuelan government in order to promote economic and social development by, among other things, offering credit to low-income Venezuelans. The Banfoandes foreign official was responsible for some of Banfoandes’s foreign investments.
Court records state that from early 2009 through 2012, Lujan, Clarke and Hurtado participated in a bribery scheme in which Gonzalez allegedly directed trading business she controlled at BANDES to the broker-dealer, and in return, agents and employees of the broker-dealer split the revenue the broker-dealer generated from this trading business with Gonzalez. During this time period, the broker-dealer generated over $60 million in mark-ups and mark-downs from trades with BANDES. Agents and employees of the broker-dealer, including Lujan, Clarke and Hurtado, devised a split with Gonzalez of the commissions paid by BANDES to the broker-dealer. Emails, account records and other documents collected from the broker-dealer and other sources reveal that Gonzalez allegedly received a substantial share of the revenue generated by the broker-dealer for BANDES-related trades. Specifically, Gonzalez allegedly received kickbacks and payments from broker-dealer agents and employees that were frequently in six-figure amounts.
To further conceal the scheme, the kickbacks to Gonzalez were often paid using intermediary corporations and offshore accounts that she held in Switzerland, among other places. For instance, Lujan, Clarke and Hurtado used accounts they controlled in Switzerland to transfer funds to an account Gonzalez allegedly controlled in Switzerland. Additionally, Hurtado and his spouse received substantial compensation from the broker-dealer, portions of which Hurtado transferred to an account allegedly held by Gonzalez in Miami and to an account held by an associate of Gonzalez in Switzerland. Hurtado also sought and allegedly received reimbursement from Gonzalez for the US income taxes he had paid on money that he used to make kickback payments to Gonzalez. Lujan and Clarke also derived substantial profit from their roles in the bribery scheme.
According to court records, beginning in or about November 2010, the SEC commenced a periodic examination of the broker-dealer, and from November 2010 through March 2011 the SEC’s examination staff made several visits to the broker-dealer’s offices in Manhattan. In early 2011, Lujan, Clarke and Hurtado discussed their concern that the SEC was examining the broker-dealer’s relationship with BANDES and asking questions regarding certain emails and other information that the SEC examination staff had discovered. Lujan, Clarke and Hurtado agreed that they would take steps to conceal the true facts of the broker-dealer’s relationship with BANDES, including deleting emails. Lujan, Clarke and Hurtado then, in fact, deleted emails. Additionally as part of this effort to obstruct the SEC examination, Clarke lied to SEC examination staff in response to an interview question about his relationship to an individual who had received purported foreign associate payments relating to BANDES.
In a related scheme, from 2008 through mid-2009, Lujan, Clarke and Hurtado paid bribes to the Banfoandes foreign official, who, in exchange, directed Banfoandes trading business to the broker-dealer.
Gonzalez was charged in a criminal complaint and arrested on May 3, 2013, in connection with the BANDES bribery scheme. The charges against Gonzalez are merely accusations, and she is presumed innocent unless and until proven guilty.