By Nate Raymond
(Reuters) - A Venezuelan businessman pleaded guilty on Thursday to charges stemming from what the U.S. Justice Department called a large, ongoing investigation into bribery at Venezuela's state oil company.
Roberto Rincon, 55, pleaded guilty in federal court in Houston to two counts including conspiracy to violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act over his role in a scheme involving officials at Petroleos de Venezuela S.A. (PDVSA).
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Rincon, who was president of Texas-based Tradequip Services & Marine, was arrested in December along with another Venezuelan businessman, Abraham Jose Shiera Bastidas, for conspiring to pay bribes to PDVSA officials to secure energy contracts.
The guilty plea, ahead of a trial set for next week, was the sixth in what the Justice Department said was an ongoing probe involving PDVSA, the exclusive operator of oilfields in the economically struggling OPEC country.
An indictment filed against Rincon in December alleged that five PDVSA officials received hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes made through wire transfers, mortgage payments, airline tickets and, in one case, whiskey.
From 2009-14, more than $1 billion was traced to the conspiracy, with $750 million to Rincon, a Venezuelan citizen who lives in Texas, according to court documents.
In pleading guilty, Rincon admitted that he and Shiera agreed to the pay bribes to ensure their companies were placed on PDVSA bidding panels, enabling them to secure lucrative energy contracts, prosecutors said.
In his plea agreement, Rincon also admitted to failing to report on his 2010 federal tax return over $6 million in foreign dividend income he received from a Venezuelan corporation he owned, prosecutors said.
Shiera, who lives in Florida and owned multiple U.S.-based energy companies, pleaded guilty in March. Four other individuals have also pleaded guilty in the case, including three former PDVSA officials.
Rincon, who has been in custody since his arrest, is scheduled to be sentenced on Sept. 30.
Caracas-based PDVSA did not immediately respond to a request for comment. It has previously said it was the target of a smear campaign by opponents who are trying to link it to corruption.
The case is U.S. v. Rincon-Fernandez, U.S. District Court, Southern District of Texas, No. 15-cr-654.
(Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; editing by Alan Crosby and Tom Brown)