For the past decade, wealthy Venezuelan Naman Wakil has traveled the globe for business deals while living with his family in a $3.5 million Coconut Grove condominium overlooking Biscayne Bay.
On Tuesday, federal agents arrested Wakil in a corruption and money-laundering conspiracy case accusing him of making an illicit fortune off hundreds of millions of dollars in food and oil contracts with the Venezuelan government and then diverting some of the tainted money into Miami-Dade’s luxury real estate market.
Wakil controlled food and oil companies that paid millions in bribes to Venezuelan officials in exchange for securing government contracts between 2010 and 2017, and he held bank accounts in the United States, Cayman Islands, Panama and Switzerland, according to an indictment filed by Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Berger.
Wakil has been charged in the United States because authorities say he invested his illegal profits from the corrupt government deals in the family’s condo at the Residences at Vizcaya on Hiawatha Avenue in Coconut Grove as well as in high-rise units on Brickell Avenue in downtown Miami and at the Porsche Design Tower in Sunny Isles Beach — among more than a dozen assets including a plane and yacht that the feds plan to confiscate from him. The total value of his ill-gotten purchases is at least $50 million, according to the indictment.
Wakil’s defense attorney, Stephen Binhak, declined to comment on the foreign corruption and money-laundering conspiracy charges in the indictment. Wakil, 59, a lawful U.S. resident, had his first appearance in federal court on Wednesday.
Wakil’s arrest was made by Homeland Security Investigations, which has been at the forefront of Venezuelan corruption and money laundering cases in Miami.
Wakil is the latest member of Venezuela’s politically connected business class who has been accused in Miami federal court of exploiting cozy relationships with senior officials in the governments of past President Hugo Chavez and current President Nicolas Maduro to enrich themselves through inflated government contracts, lucrative loans and currency exchange schemes. Most of their money has ended up in Swiss and other foreign bank accounts, along with investments in South Florida real estate.
The embezzlement of billions of dollars from Venezuela’s socialist government, particularly from its main cash source, the national oil company known as PDVSA, has contributed to the South American nation’s drastic economic collapse, forcing millions of people to flee to neighboring countries and the United States, U.S. authorities say.
Wakil, a Syrian-born entrepreneur, gained some notoriety in 2016 when he was featured in a McClatchy series on the Panama Papers scandal that exposed secret shell companies set up in off-shore bank accounts by the wealthy clients of a Panamanian law firm, Mossack Fonseca. The accounts were set up to help the law firm’s clients hide money, make foreign investments and evade taxes, according to the McClatchy series.
In the spring of 2015, according one McClatchy story, a Miami-based Citigroup banker emailed the Panamanian law firm with an inquiry about a wealthy client who needed assistance.
Mossack Fonseca’s leaked emails identified that client as Wakil, a globetrotting entrepreneur worth about $400 million with business interests in both North Carolina and Miami. He wanted to reduce his U.S. tax liability and protect his assets from creditors, his lawyer’s memo indicates.
The Panamanian law firm proposed creating a series of trusts and offshore companies for the client. A year later, Wakil was embroiled in a controversy that tied him to a Venezuelan general in an alleged procurement scam that reportedly netted $76 million.
More than 500 banks, their subsidiaries and branches registered nearly 15,600 shell companies with Mossack Fonseca between 1985 and 2015, according to an analysis by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. That’s the umbrella group that partnered with 370 journalists from news organizations in 80 countries, including McClatchy as the sole U.S. newspaper partner, to examine the 11.5 million leaked documents from the law firm.
Wakil had ties to the highest levels of the government of Venezuela, an oil-rich nation and U.S. nemesis.
Wakil, a Syrian-born U.S resident with a Venezuelan passport, was named in a 2015 book called El Gran Saqueo (The Great Plunder), which alleged widespread government corruption. Then, an online investigative news site, www.cuentasclarasdigital.org, posted a report alleging Wakil had provided nearly $6 million to the brothers-in-law of a powerful Venezuelan general, Carlos Osorio Zambrano, in exchange for a lucrative supply contract.
In 2019, Bloomberg described Wakil as a former street peddler who accumulated vast wealth through the purchase of discounted meat products that were sold at vastly inflated prices to the Venezuelan government.
Wakil, who was born in Aleppo, immigrated to Venezuela and lived in Caracas’ Petare district, one of the world’s largest slums. He rose from selling goods on the streets to immense wealth. According to a Venezuelan audit commission’s findings, he had a close relationship with Osorio, a major general in Venezuela’s military who oversaw billions of dollars of food contracts as the nation’s food minister.
Kevin Hall, McClatchy’s chief economics reporter based in Washington, D.C., contributed to this story.