Ex-Colombian official gets four years in U.S. prison for taking bribe in mall bathroom

An unusual international bribery case that has played out in a South Florida shopping mall and the corridors of power in Colombia reached a turning point Wednesday with the sentencing of a former Colombian anti-corruption chief to four years in prison by a Miami federal court judge.

Luis Gustavo Moreno Rivera, the former national director of anti-corruption in the Colombia attorney general’s office, admitted he took thousands of dollars in bribes at a Miami-Dade shopping mall from a Colombian politician who was under investigation back home and seeking insider evidence from the one-time top official.

U.S. District Judge Ursula Ungaro backed off a substantially higher sentence in the guideline range of seven to nine years for Moreno’s conviction on a charge of conspiring to commit money laundering, which federal prosecutors sought for his punishment. Ungaro took into account that the former senior Colombian government lawyer had already been sentenced to about five years in his native country for using his position to extort corrupt political targets under investigation.

“I am not willing to do that,” Ungaro said before imposing roughly half the U.S. guideline range. “It borders on preposterous.”

At the first part of his sentencing hearing held in December, Moreno expressed his apologies to his family, the Colombian government and U.S. authorities. He did not speak before his sentence was rendered Wednesday.

“I made a bad decision in my life, and I am very repentant,” Moreno, 37, said during the previous hearing in December. “There is no worse punishment than the embarrassment I feel in the bottom of my heart.”

The former Colombian official and a private attorney who assisted him each pleaded guilty in August to a money-laundering conspiracy charge involving a foreign bribery scheme that climaxed at the Dolphin Mall in Sweetwater.

Moreno admitted that he traveled in June 2017 to Miami on an official trip and pocketed thousands of dollars from a Colombian politician, Alejandro Lyons Muskus, who was under investigation by Moreno’s office. Moreno’s defense attorney said Lyons had fled a criminal investigation in Colombia, though U.S. prosecutors disagreed.

Lyons left Colombia after he was charged with taking bribes from Colombian contractors during his term as governor of Cordoba between 2012 and 2015. Lyons was recruited as a confidential source by federal agents in Miami two years later. He is not being prosecuted in the United States, mainly because he has not committed a crime here — only in Colombia.

Moreno’s lawyer said Lyons shook down his client for the first time in Miami by threatening to reveal that Moreno was cheating on his wife. “It wasn’t until [Moreno] came to the United States that they started talking about the bribery [deal],” defense attorney David Weinstein said.

However, federal prosecutors said Lyons came to Miami in spring 2017 because his wife was having difficulties with her pregnancy before she gave birth to their baby at Jackson Memorial Hospital. Assistant U.S. attorneys Tony Gonzalez and Lynn Kirkpatrick said Moreno approached Lyons about the bribery scheme in Colombia, before either man came to Miami.

But exactly how Lyons became a confidential source for the Drug Enforcement Administration in an undercover bribery operation targeting Moreno in May 2017 is murky.

Moreno and the fellow attorney acting as his middleman, Leonardo Luis Pinilla Gomez, met with Lyons in the Miami area the following month. They met again in a Dolphin Mall bathroom, where Moreno and Pinilla collected $10,000 in cash stuffed in a large manila envelope from Lyons, according to court records. Moreno kept $7,000 and Pinilla retained $3,000.

The bribe was in exchange for giving Lyons confidential information about the politician’s corruption probe in Colombia, including the identities of cooperating witnesses who were testifying against him. Moreno also planned to assign members of the investigative team in Lyons’ case to other probes to distract them.

Moreno’s defense attorney, Weinstein, called Lyons the “real culprit” in the bribery scheme that stretched from Colombia to South Florida. Ungaro agreed with him, to a degree.

“Mr. Lyons put himself in a vulnerable position by accepting bribes [in Colombia on public projects] — a lot of bribes,” Ungaro said at the December hearing. “We don’t have much of a victim here in Mr. Lyons.”

Lyons eventually agreed to give back some of that bribery money — $1.35 million, according to a letter from the Colombian government that was filed in federal court.

“The victim is the United States,” Ungaro finally declared, noting that the U.S. government cannot tolerate foreign officials coming to the U.S. to engage in extortion stemming from corruption investigations in their native country.

While working undercover for the DEA, Lyons recorded conversations with Moreno and Pinilla in which they discussed the anti-corruption official’s authority to control the probe into Lyons’ corruption activity in Colombia.

In exchange, Moreno and Pinilla asked for a bribe payment of 400 million Colombian pesos ($132,000) with an additional $30,000 to be paid before Moreno left Miami for Colombia, according to an indictment.

Moreno’s shakedown of the Colombian politician led to the high-ranking Colombian official’s arrest in Bogotá in June 2017. Before his extradition to Miami a year later, Moreno pleaded guilty in Colombia to a similar extortion scheme, including testifying about a corrupt Supreme Court justice and other members of the judiciary in that country. Moreno was sentenced to almost five years in prison, which Ungaro took into account in his sentencing.

According to Colombian news reports, Moreno cooperated with Colombian officials and his testimony led to the arrests of the former Supreme Court chief justice and other government officials.

“It’s clear the Colombian government wants my client’s cooperation,” said Moreno’s attorney, Weinstein, adding that the “cooperation has put his life in great danger.”

Moreno’s associate, Pinilla, represented by defense attorney Humberto Dominguez, was also sentenced Wednesday. Pinilla, 32, who apologized but also suggested he was doing a favor for a friend, received two years in prison.

As part of their punishment, Moreno returned $7,000 in bribery payments and Pinilla gave back $3,000.

Miami Herald | January 2, 2019