MIAMI (AP) — A businessman accused of siphoning off millions in state contracts from Venezuela pleaded not guilty on Monday in a high profile case that’s strained relations between Washington and Caracas.
Dressed in a beige jumpsuit, Alex Saab was tethered by the legs to five other inmates as he entered the Miami federal courtroom for his arraignment.
His attorney, Neil Schuster, addressed the court as a representative for the “Diplomat of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela” and then entered a plea of not guilty. A small group of supporters of Venezuela’s government shouted “Free, free Alex Saab” outside the courthouse during the proceedings.
Saab, 49, is accused of paying bribes to siphon off $350 million from state contracts to build housing for Venezuela’s socialist government. After seven charges were dismissed he now faces a single count of conspiracy to commit money laundering punishable up to 20 years in prison — the maximum allowed by Cape Verde when it agreed to extradite Saab to the U.S. last month.
Venezuela has launched an all out diplomatic offensive involving allies Russia and Cuba to come to Saab’s defense, arguing that the Colombian-born businessman was a diplomat on a special humanitarian mission to Iran when his plane was detained during a refueling stop on the African archipelago.
“He was chased down, kidnapped and tortured for helping Venezuela,” Maduro said at a book fair this month in Caracas where he presented alongside Saab’s Italian wife a collection of letters he purportedly wrote while detained in Cape Verde on a U.S. warrant.
But new court filings in a related case indicate that Saab, despite his portrayal as an anti-imperial revolutionary, may have been secretly betraying Venezuela’s governmentto U.S. officials for years.
The bombshell revelation was contained in a sentencing memo by attorneys for a University of Miami professor, Bruce Bagley, who Saab hired to assist with his son’s visa application and then used as a channel to make payments to attorneys that were helping him reach out to U.S. federal investigators.
Saab, through an attorney, has said all of his activities had the blessing of Maduro’s government and at all times he’s been a “loyal citizen” of Venezuela.
But Bagley’s explanation tracks with the account of three people familiar with the investigation into Saab who said that he met with U.S. federal law enforcement, including agents from the Drug Enforcement Administration, on multiple occasions in Colombia and Europe prior to being charged in 2019. The three individuals spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity to discuss the meetings.
Venezuela considers Saab the keeper of state secrets and has said any attempts to extract a confession could compromise Venezuela’s national security.
But it’s unclear what leverage the Venezuelans have in preventing Saab from cooperating with federal investigators in exchange for a lighter sentence.
Just as Saab was being transported to the U.S. on a Department of Justice plane, Maduro’s government suspended negotiations taking place in Mexico with Venezuela’s U.S.-backed opposition, accusing the Biden administration of seeking to sabotage the talks. Maduro’s government also threw back into jail six American oil executives it accuses of corruption. They had been under house arrest in another politically charged case marked by allegations of wrongful detention.
Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to assert pressure on Saab.
Shortly after his arrival to the U.S., prosecutors in Miami unsealed a new indictment accusing his longtime business partner, fellow Colombian Alvaro Pulido, of creating a network of shell companies spanning the globe — Turkey, Hong Kong, Mexico and the United Arab Emirates — to hide windfall profits and bribe payments tied to overvalued food contracts. Saab himself was sanctioned in 2019 for his role in the same alleged kickbacks scheme.
But Saab’s importance to Maduro’s government ran much deeper.
As the U.S. ratcheted up sanctions on Venezuela, he is believed to have emerged as the government’s main fixer with the international connections to circumvent the U.S. restrictions. His trip to Iran, described as a humanitarian mission by Maduro, was aimed at securing deals to sell the country’s crude oil in exchange for much-needed fuel and other goods.
Follow Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman