16 June 2024

CLEVELAND (AP) — A major Thai asphalt company has been implicated for money laundering in a criminal complaint against a Miami businessman accused of violating U.S. sanctions for doing maintenance work on Venezuela’s fleet of Russian fighter jets.

Jorge Nobrega was arrested Sunday at Miami’s international airport, according to his attorney, Francisco Alfonso Marty, who said it was premature to comment further.

A criminal complaint and affidavit filed Monday in Miami federal court allege that Nobrega’s company, Achabal Technologies, sold to Venezuela’s military a suppressant foam to insulate fuel tanks on its Sukhoi combat aircraft 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.

For his work, Nobrega’s Miami-based company allegedly was paid by Tipco Asphalt, a longtime client of Venezuela’s state oil company, PDVSA.

An Associated Press investigation last year revealed how Venezuela had been relying on the publicly traded Tipco to blunt the impact of U.S. sanctions. In exchange for deep discounts on crude shipments, Tipco would pay PDVSA’s obligations and deduct the amounts from what it owed the Venezuelan oil giant, according to records obtained by AP.

Tipco is not named as a defendant in the criminal complaint. But an investigator for the Department of Homeland Security, citing AP’s reporting, identified the Thai company as the “third-party money launderer” that the complaint says “collaborated” with PDVSA to move hundreds of millions of dollars on behalf of Venezuela’s socialist government.

U.S. sanctions against President Nicolas Maduro’s government 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.

Documents obtained by AP show that Achabal received three payments totaling more than $3.6 million via Tipco between February 2019 and March 2020. Two other U.S.- registered vendors not affiliated with Nobrega received an additional $4.1 million in the same manner, according to the same records.

The documents — invoices, contracts, shipping records, and wire receipts — were provided to AP by a former PDVSA consultant located outside Venezuela on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation.

Nobrega, a Venezuelan-American dual national, established Achabal in the 1990s. The company lists as its address on Florida corporate registry a small warehouse near Miami’s international airport identified by giant sign for another company. Several other businesses are also registered at the same address.

There is no indication Tipco knew what services Achabal was providing Venezuela even as it acted as a financial intermediary allowing the company to evade compliance with sanctions.

But investigators obtained documents that suggest Achabal tried to hide its dealings with Venezuela, at one point presenting purchase orders from an Australian vendor specializing in fuel handling equipment to justify more than $800,000 in two transfers to Achabal’s bank account in Portugal.

“Law enforcement is unaware whether these supporting documents reflect actual business dealings and are being reused by Nobrega to provide justification for the wire transfers, or whether they were completely fabricated,” the federal agent said in his affidavit.

Tipco did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the criminal complaint.

But CEO Chaiwat Srivalwat, in an email to AP last year, said that any payments to third parties at PDVSA’s request “strictly corresponded” to its oil purchases from Venezuela.

“Tipco is a PDVSA client, not the Venezuelan central bank,” Jean-Pierre Pastor, Tipco’s representative in Venezuela, wrote in bold and underlined text in an email to PDVSA in January 2020 complaining of the frequent requests for it to pay its vendors.

“Tipco tried as much as possible to assist you in this difficult period,” added Pastor, the brother of longtime Tipco board member Jacques Pastor, who has also served as the head of the Asia-Pacific office for Tipco’s top shareholder, French road builder Colas. “Let’s hope you will not forget it.”