New York, New York - The former chief executive officer and former managing director of a U.S. broker-dealer (the Broker-Dealer), pleaded guilty to bribery charges arising from their scheme to pay bribes to Maria De Los Angeles Gonzalez De Hernandez, who was a senior official in Venezuela’s state economic development bank, Banco de Desarrollo Económico y Social de Venezuela (Bandes), in return for trading business that generated more than $60 million in commissions.
Assistant Attorney General Leslie R. Caldwell of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division and U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara of the Southern District of New York made the announcement.
“Benito Chinea and Joseph DeMeneses are the fifth and sixth defendants to plead guilty in connection with this far-reaching bribery scheme, which ranged from Wall Street to the streets of Caracas,” said Assistant Attorney General Caldwell. “The guilty pleas and the forfeiture of assets once again demonstrate that the Department is committed to holding corporate executives who engage in foreign bribery individually accountable and to deny them the proceeds of their corruption.”
According to the allegations in the indictment and other documents previously filed in Manhattan federal court:
Benito Chinea, 48, of Manalapan, New Jersey, and Joseph De Meneses, 45, of Fairfield, Connecticut, working with others, arranged the bribe payments to Gonzalez in exchange for her directing Bandes’s financial trading business to the Broker-Dealer. Previously, Gonzalez, along with two employees of the Broker-Dealer, Tomas Alberto Clarke Bethancourt (“Clarke”) and Jose Alejandro Hurtado (“Hurtado”), pleaded guilty for their involvement in this bribery scheme. A managing director of the Broker-Dealer, Ernesto Lujan (“Lujan”), also pleaded guilty for his role in the scheme.
Background on the Broker-Dealer and Bandes
At all times relevant to the charges, Chinea was the chief executive officer and De Meneses was a managing director in the Broker-Dealer, which was headquartered in New York, New York, with offices in Miami, Florida. In 2008, the Broker-Dealer established a group called the Global Markets Group, which included De Meneses, Lujan, and Clarke, 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 Bandes a mark-up on purchases and a mark-down on sales.
The Bribery Scheme
As alleged in court documents, from late 2008 through 2012, Chinea and De Meneses, together with three Miami-based Broker-Dealer employees, Lujan, Clarke and Hurtado, participated in a bribery scheme in which Gonzalez 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 commissions from trades with Bandes.
In order to conceal their conduct, Chinea, De Meneses and their co-conspirators routed the payments to Gonzalez, frequently in six-figure amounts, through third-parties posing as “foreign finders” and into offshore bank accounts. In several instances, Chinea personally signed checks worth millions of dollars that were made payable to one of these purported “foreign finders” and later deposited in a Swiss bank account.
As further alleged in court documents, as a result of the bribery scheme, Bandes quickly became the Broker-Dealer’s most profitable customer. As the relationship continued, however, Gonzalez became increasingly unhappy about the untimeliness of the payments due her from the Broker-Dealer, and she threatened to suspend Bandes’s business. In response, De Meneses and Clarke agreed to pay Gonzalez approximately $1.5 million from their personal funds. Chinea and De Meneses agreed to use Broker-Dealer funds to reimburse De Meneses and Clarke for these bribe payments. To conceal their true nature, Chinea and De Meneses agreed to hide these reimbursements in the Broker-Dealer’s books as sham loans from the Broker-Dealer to corporate entities associated with De Meneses and Clarke.
Chinea and De Meneses each pleaded guilty before U.S. District Judge Denise L. Cote of the Southern District of New York to one count of conspiracy to violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act and the Travel Act. Chinea and De Meneses have also agreed to pay $3,636,432 and $2,670,612 in forfeiture, respectively, which amounts represent their earnings from the bribery scheme. Sentencing hearings are scheduled for March 27, 2015.
Today’s announcement is part of efforts underway by President Obama’s Financial Fraud Enforcement Task Force (FFETF) which was created in November 2009 to wage an aggressive, coordinated and proactive effort to investigate and prosecute financial crimes. With more than 20 federal agencies, 94 U.S. Attorneys’ offices and state and local partners, it is the broadest coalition of law enforcement, investigatory and regulatory agencies ever assembled to combat fraud. Since its formation, the task force has made great strides in facilitating increased investigation and prosecution of financial crimes; enhancing coordination and cooperation among federal, state and local authorities; addressing discrimination in the lending and financial markets and conducting outreach to the public, victims, financial institutions and other organizations. For more information on the task force, visit www.stopfraud.gov.
This case is being investigated by the FBI, and prosecuted Senior Deputy Chief James Koukios of the Criminal Division’s Fraud Section and Assistant U.S. Attorneys Harry A. Chernoff and Jason H. Cowley of the Southern District of New York. Assistant U.S. Attorney Carolina Fornos of the Southern District of New York is responsible for the forfeiture aspects of the case. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission also assisted with this investigation.