SOFIA - Bulgaria and the United States have halted what they believe could be a scheme to illegally channel money out of Venezuela, which is under sanctions from Washington amid the ongoing political crisis in the South American country, officials said Tuesday.
Bulgarian officials and U.S. Ambassador Eric Rubin told a news briefing that “millions of euros” in payments from Venezuela’s state oil company PVDSA had been seized in bank accounts in Bulgaria.
The funds — ostensibly earmarked for the purchase of food and to finance a Venezuelan sports federation — had been paid into a number of accounts held by a lawyer with dual Bulgarian and foreign nationality, who had now left the country.
Some of the money had already been transferred out of the accounts to other countries, Bulgarian chief prosecutor Sotir Tsatsarov said.
The Bulgarian and U.S. authorities suspect that the reasons given for the money transfers “have nothing to do with reality,” he said.
“We will most probably open a probe for money laundering,” Tsatsarov continued, adding that the authorities refused to confirm at this stage whether the transfers were related to the current political crisis in Venezuela.
“We have undertaken measures to place the remaining funds, which are quite substantial, under control in order to prevent them being taken out of the country,” Tsatsarov said.
Bulgaria’s central bank and its national security agency, DANS, were checking whether similar transfers had been made into other accounts in the country, said DANS chief Dimitar Georgiev.
US ambassador Rubin said it was “critical” to “stop the illegal transfer of funds to support the illegal authorities in Venezuela.”
The U.S. was working with its European partners “to ensure the wealth of the people in Venezuela is not stolen,” he said.
Oil makes up 96 percent of the revenue of crisis-hit Venezuela and Washington is using sanctions to try to starve the regime of Nicolas Maduro, while backing opposition leader and self-proclaimed president Juan Guaido.
In a tweet on Sunday, Guaido’s aide and commissioner of finance Carlos Paparoni warned that the state-owned PDVSA oil company had been illegally wiring funds through Bulgarian accounts.