MIAMI – A businessman described as the main conduit for corruption in Venezuela was secretly signed up by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration as a source in 2018, revealing information about bribes he paid to top officials in President Nicolás Maduro's socialist government.
As part of his multi-year cooperation, Alex Saab also forfeited millions of dollars in illegal proceeds he admitted to earning from corrupt state contracts, new records in a closely-watched criminal case show. But his contact with U.S. law enforcement ended abruptly after he missed a May 30, 2019 deadline to surrender to or face criminal charges, according to prosecutors.
The stunning revelation was made public following a heated closed door hearing Wednesday in Miami federal court in which an attorney for Saab argued his family in Venezuela could be jailed or physically harmed by Maduro's government if his interactions with U.S. law enforcement became known.
“They are basically under the thumb of the government," attorney Neil Schuster argued in the hearing, a transcript of which was later unsealed by Judge Robert Scola. “If the Venezuelan government finds out the extent of what this individual has provided, I have no doubt that there will be retaliation against his wife and his children.”
U.S. officials have presented Saab as a close associate of Maduro, someone who reaped huge windfall profits from dodgy contracts to import food while millions in the South American nation starved. The Maduro government considers him a diplomat who was kidnapped during a refueling stop while on a humanitarian mission to Iran made more urgent by U.S. sanctions.
“Saab was playing with fire,” said Gerard Reyes, a Miami-based author of a recent book on Saab, including his past dealings with U.S. officials. “He believed that he could work as a snitch for the prosecution and at the same time pretend he was being persecuted by Yankee imperialism, without any consequences. But in the end he got burned.”
The Associated Press in November reported that Saab has held several meetings with U.S. law enforcement in his native Colombia as well as Europe. As part of his cooperation, he wired three payments to a DEA-controlled account containing nearly $10 million obtained through corruption.
However, he was deactivated as a source after failing to surrender as had been previously agreed during meetings in which he was represented by U.S. and Colombian attorneys. Two months later, he was sanctioned by the Trump administration and indicted in Miami federal court on charges of siphoning millions from state contracts to build affordable housing for Venezuela’s government.
Saab, shackled and wearing a beige jumpsuit, attended Wednesday's hearing. The public was briefly barred from the courtroom as the two sides haggled over whether or not to make public two documents filed by prosecutors nearly a year ago, while Saab was fighting extradition from Cape Verde, detailing his past cooperation..
With the courtroom sealed, Schuster asked for Saab to be released on bond in light of his four years of assistance to the U.S. government — cooperation that other attorneys for Saab have always denied.
Judge Scola immediately rejected the idea, citing Saab's past attempts to evade extradition, according to the transcript of the closed proceedings.
"So you are going to have all this evidence that this guy is a flight risk, he’s involved in this humongous crime, he’s tried it, he fought extradition, and the judge inexplicably grants him a bond?" Scola said.
Prosecutors a year ago had sought to keep secret those meetings with U.S. law enforcement out of concern for Saab's safety and that of his family, some of whom are still in Venezuela.
But they downplayed any such dangers on Wednesday, saying Saab's legal team hadn't taken them up on an offer to assist his family in leaving Venezuela. Scola agreed, saying the public’s right to access criminal proceedings outweighs any concerns about his family's safety.
The details of Saab's outreach to U.S. law enforcement surfaced in a related case involving a University of Miami professor who served as an intermediary for payments Saab was making to his U.S. attorneys.
Another Saab attorney, who is fighting to get Saab's status as a Venezuelan diplomat recognized by the U.S. Court of Appeals in Atlanta, vehemently rejected claims that the businessman had been cooperating with U.S. investigators.
New York-based David Rivkin, who was not present in court Wednesday, said the sole purpose of Saab's meetings with U.S. law enforcement officials was to clear his name and were undertaken with the “full knowledge and support" of Maduro's government. He said the release of the document, at the request of the Department of Justice, is no more than an attempt to harm Venezuela's interests, its relationship with Saab, and illustrates the weakness of the government's case.
"Alex Saab remains a loyal citizen and diplomat of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela and will never do anything to harm the interests of the country and people that have given him so much," Rivkin said in a statement.
Meanwhile, Saab’s Italian-born wife, Camilla Fabri, said on social media that the U.S. was “brazenly lying, like it did with Russia and Iraq” and that her husband would never cause harm to Venezuela.
As part of U.S. criminal investigations, it’s common for targets to meet with U.S. law enforcement agents to sniff out information about the probe and explore a possible plea deal.
However, the documents unsealed Wednesday described Saab's cooperation as “proactive” and more extensive and meaningful than previously believed.
According to prosecutors, the first debriefing with agents from the DEA and Federal Bureau of Investigation took place in Colombia's capital of Bogota over two days in August 2016. Other meetings ensued and in 2018 he was signed up as a cooperating source after stating to agents that he had paid bribes to Venezuelan officials, none of whom have been named in the court records.
At the last meeting, in Europe in April 2019, he was warned that if he didn’t surrender by the May deadline he would be sanctioned and criminally charged, something that indeed happened in July 2019.
Joshua Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman