U. of Miami professor pleads guilty in Venezuela graft case

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MIAMI (AP) — A University of Miami professor blamed a controversial law enforcement informant for his career-ending decision to try and hide $3 million in proceeds from a corruption scheme run by a businessman connected to Venezuela’s socialist government.

Bruce Bagley revealed the identify of the informant and the businessman in pleading guilty Monday to two counts of money laundering. He faces nearly five years in prison when sentenced Oct. 1 and also agreed to forfeit $474,000.

“I should have understood that the money involved were proceeds of unlawful activity,” the 74-year-old Bagley said during a Manhattan federal court hearing conducted via video conference because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Bagley, an international studies professor and top expert on money laundering, has written numerous books on the subject, testified before Congress, as an expert in court and been interviewed by numerous news organizations, including The Associated Press.

But his charmed life came undone after he began working as a consultant for Miami businessman Alex Saab, according to two people familiar with the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private details.

Saab initially hired Bagley to help get a student visa for his son and later sought his advice on investments in Central America, according to the two people. Starting around November 2017, Bagley started receiving monthly deposits of approximately $200,000 from a purported food company based in the United Arab Emirates, prosecutors alleged. Additional funds were wired from an account in Switzerland.

Bagley transferred 90% of the money into the accounts controlled by informant Jorge Luis Hernandez to conceal the nature, source and ownership of the funds. But he kept a 10% commission for himself. He continued to accept the dirty Venezuelan cash even after one of his accounts was closed for suspicious activity.

Last July, the Trump administration sanctioned Saab for allegedly running a corruption network that profited from a no-bid contract to import food to Venezuela on behalf of Nicolás Maduro’s government. On the same day he was also indicted by federal prosecutors in Miami on charges of money laundering tied to a public housing program in Venezuela.

Maria Dominguez, an attorney representing Saab, declined to comment.

While attention in the case has focused on Saab, it was Hernandez who introduced him to Bagley, according to the two people.

Hernandez, known by his alias Boliche, has been a U.S. law enforcement informant in anti-narcotics cases dating back more than a decade, according to the two people. He’s also helped connect narcos in his native Colombia with American defense attorneys. Along the way he developed a reputation for delivering results but also aggressive behavior towards friends and foes alike, the two people said.

Bagley, an expert on Colombia’s criminal underworld, had known Hernandez for years and even provided testimony when he applied for asylum in the U.S. arguing he would be killed if he were deported to Colombia, where he had ties with right-wing paramilitary groups who then dominated drug trafficking along the the Caribbean coast, according to the two people.

It’s not clear what motivated Hernandez to turn on Bagley. Attempts to locate him were unsuccessful. Prosecutors, without naming Hernandez, said he was working under the direction of law enforcement

But at some point Hernandez informed him that the money he was receiving represented the proceeds of foreign bribery and embezzlement stolen from the Venezuelan people.

“Corruption, your honor, that’s what was said to me,” Bagley told U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff when asked if he had been informed of the funds’ origin.

“And did you have any more specific understanding of what kind of corruption?,” the judge asked.

“No, your honor, I did not,” Bagley answered.

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Joshua Goodman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/APjoshgoodman

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