By Alexandra Ulmer and Mircely Guanipa
MARACAIBO, Venezuela (Reuters) - A legal strategy switch by Venezuela's state-owned oil giant PDVSA to portray itself as a victim in a massive bribery scheme detected by the U.S. government is unlikely to lead to compensation and may even backfire.
In a case that shook the local oil industry, two prominent Venezuelan oil businessmen were arrested last year in the United States on charges of violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA).
Roberto Rincon and Abraham Shiera have both pleaded guilty to bribing PDVSA officials in order to win juicy contracts and are to be sentenced in June. The case is part of a wider U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation into corruption at PDVSA.
Socialist-run Venezuela originally slammed the probes as sabotage by the U.S government, its ideological foe.
But in a turnaround, PDVSA [PDVSA.UL] said in July it was actually a "victim of fraud" and its procurement arm Bariven last month asked a U.S. court to order Rincon and Shiera to compensate it for $600 million in losses.
The strategy switch is likely to flop, however, according to legal experts familiar with the case.
Under the FCPA, money collected from fines and penalties goes to the U.S. Treasury and appeals for compensation are rare. Allegations of endemic corruption at PDVSA are likely to weigh, too, experts believe.
While cash-strapped PDVSA might be motivated by potential compensation or a desire to defend itself, the motion could backfire as the company is more likely to be considered a co-conspirator. The DoJ will probably have to respond to PDVSA, potentially making new revelations about alleged malfeasance.
"It's possible this will come back to haunt PDVSA," said Mike Koehler, an FCPA expert at Southern Illinois University school of law.
Foreign officials who accept bribes are not prosecuted under the FCPA but they can be prosecuted for money-laundering, as happened to three mid-level ex-PDVSA employees in the case.
"The greatest risk to the higher-ups is that the proceeds of the bribery can be traced to bank accounts and frozen," said Andrew Spalding, an assistant professor of law at University of Richmond.
The DoJ is already chasing the money: $51 million from Swiss bank accounts linked to Rincon and Shiera was transferred to the United States in October.
Legal experts say the men may also be offered reduced sentences in exchange for their cooperation in the DOJ's broader PDVSA investigation.
Venezuela's Information Ministry, PDVSA, and the pair's lawyers did not respond to requests for comment.
The DoJ declined to comment.
MAGNATES OF MARACAIBO
Two ex-employees of Rincon and Shiera interviewed by Reuters said the businessmen hired former PDVSA employees to help secure kickback-laden contracts for their dozens of companies that sold everything from drilling equipment to pipes.
They said the kickbacks included phones or tablets for support staff and commissions of 3 to 10 percent for managers, and that Rincon and Shiera directly negotiated with higher-level executives.
"At PDVSA, everyone wanted to work with Rincon," said one of the former employees.
Rincon got his big break during a 2002-2003 oil strike against late leader Hugo Chavez when Rincon's main firm Tradequip Services & Marine stayed open, winning the approval of authorities.
He cultivated those relationships, brought Shiera into the fold, and they began splitting overpriced contracts, the sources said.
The two had a reputation for being jovial, dressing in luxury brands, and traveling with bodyguards, according to ex-employees, a half-dozen industry sources, and hotel staff in the oil-rich city of Maracaibo where they were originally based.
The men threw corporate parties at swanky hotels in Maracaibo and the Caribbean island of Aruba, luring top Latin musicians and serving fine whiskeys, according to a video of one event, former employees and guests.
But Rincon and Shiera are "the tip of the iceberg," according to a former high-level PDVSA procurement officer, who estimated some 250 other companies receive insider information or pay PDVSA employees for their help in winning contracts.
Venezuela's opposition parties say PDVSA has been crippled by financial malfeasance and blames corruption for some of Venezuela's deep economic recession. Food shortages and raging inflation have left many families skipping meals.
A congressional probe in October said $11 billion was missing from PDVSA, factoring in this FCPA case.
"A corruption mess that's this big and now they say no one knew about it? Nobody believes that," said Elias Matta, an opposition lawmaker and vice-president of the energy and oil commission.
(Additional reporting by Girish Gupta in Caracas, Daniela Desantis in Asuncion, Marianna Parraga in Houston, and Nate Raymond in New York; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Simon Webb and Kieran Murray)