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Miami judge sends Hugo Chavez's ex nurse to prison for 15 years

FILE - Claudia Patricia Diaz Guillen, the former nurse of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, leaves the national court in Madrid, Spain, Sept. 24, 2018. A federal judge in South Florida will announce Guillen's sentence on April 19, 2023, months after she was convicted of laundering money from bribes while serving as Venezuela's director of the National Treasury.
Paul White/AP
FILE - Claudia Patricia Diaz Guillen, the former nurse of former Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, leaves the national court in Madrid, Spain, Sept. 24, 2018.

MIAMI (AP) — A federal judge in Miami handed down a 15-year prison sentence Wednesday to the former nurse of late Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez for taking bribes from a billionaire media mogul to green-light lucrative currency transactions when she served as Venezuela's national treasurer.

Claudia Diaz and her husband, Adrian Velasquez, were both found guilty in December by a jury of five of the six counts detailed in a 2020 indictment accusing them of taking millions of dollars in bribes. Velasquez also was sentenced Wednesday to 15 years.

The U.S. Justice Department has aggressively investigated corruption in Venezuela's socialist government, taking advantage of the United States' unique position as the destination of choice until recently for insiders to stash their ill-gotten gains.

But Diaz was the first former senior official to actually fight charges. The long sentence handed down to both her and her husband — the stiffest ever handed down against so-called Venezuelan kleptocrats — reflects their decision to reject a plea deal offered by the government as is customary in criminal cases.

"I agree with the government that the defendants drastically changed their life" from a middle class existence to one of multiple jets and yachts, Judge William Dimitrouleas said as Diaz and Velasquez listened in complete silence. "They made a lot of money."

The couple also must forfeit $136 million in cash and assets, which represents their take from the money laundering conspiracy. Attorneys for the couple said they intend to appeal.

Judge Dimitrouleas rejected prosecutors' request that she be locked away for more than 23 years, perhaps persuaded by a last-minute appeal from the couple's two minor children. On the eve of the sentencing, the couple's 14-year old son submitted a letter to the court describing how his parents were whisked away and extradited from Spain, where the family had been living, and his hope that he wouldn't grow up without a parent.

"My parents were sent to Florida, United States, so quickly that I felt they had been taken hostage," David Velasquez Diaz wrote in a letter to Judge Dimitrouleas on behalf of himself and his younger brother.

According to the indictment, Diaz and Velasquez received payments from companies controlled by their co-defendant, fugitive Venezuelan media mogul Raul Gorrin, to accounts in Miami allegedly used to pay for the couple's otherwise unexplained lavish lifestyle.

The government's case relied heavily on the testimony of one of Diaz's predecessors as treasurer, Alejandro Andrade, who took the witness stand to testify that the kickback scheme he struck with Gorrin continued under Diaz.

Like Diaz, Andrade, a former presidential security officer, leveraged a personal connection with Chávez to rise through the ranks of the army and the Venezuelan state, amassing a huge fortune almost overnight.

In 2021, he was released from prison after serving less than half of a 10-year sentence for his role in a massive scheme to siphon millions from state coffers. As part of his plea agreement, he forfeited more than $260 million in cash and assets, including an oceanfront Palm Beach mansion, luxury vehicles, show-jumping horses and several Rolex and Hublot watches.

The trial took place as normally hostile relations between the US and Venezuela are starting to ease after the Trump-era policy of "maximum pressure" to remove President Nicolás Maduro has stalled.

Recently the Biden administration loosened crushing oil sanctions against the OPEC nation, allowing U.S. oil company Chevron for the first time in more than three years to resume production to support fledgling negotiations with the opposition.

But ongoing criminal investigations against Venezuelan insiders remain closely watched in south Florida, home to millions of Venezuelans, Cubans and Nicaraguans fleeing leftist rule in their homelands.

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