Ex-Honduran cabinet official pleads guilty in U.S. money laundering case

FILE PHOTO: Yankel Rosenthal Coello exits the Manhattan U.S. District Courthouse in New York City, U.S., May 6, 2016. REUTERS/Brendan McDermid (Reuters)

By Brendan Pierson

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A former member of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez' cabinet pleaded guilty in a New York federal court on Tuesday to attempting to launder drug money from the Central American country, prosecutors said.

Yankel Rosenthal, who served as minister of investment under Hernandez, entered his plea before U.S. District Judge Valerie Caproni in Manhattan, prosecutors said.

Rosenthal, 48, was charged in October 2015 along with his father, Jaime Rosenthal, a former vice president of Honduras.

His cousin, Yani Rosenthal, a veteran politician and two-time presidential candidate, was also charged in the laundering scheme along with Andres Acosta Garcia, a lawyer with the family's Grupo Continental conglomerate.

Yani Rosenthal pleaded guilty on July 26, and Acosta pleaded guilty on Aug. 16, prosecutors revealed Tuesday. Jaime Rosenthal remains at large.

The four men engaged in bribery and a multi-year conspiracy to launder the proceeds of narcotics trafficking through accounts located in the United States, prosecutors said.

They said Acosta and the Rosenthal family worked to help a powerful Honduran drug trafficking organization known as the Cachiros.

Honduras has long been identified by U.S. drug enforcement officials as a transshipment point for South American cocaine and other drugs destined for the U.S. market.

Prosecutors have also accused Rosenthal of funneling bribes from drug traffickers seeking official protection to Yani Rosenthal as campaign contributions, and of soliciting a bribe for a Honduran politician from an unnamed U.S. company seeking oil exploration rights in Honduras.

Rosenthal also received money from a drug trafficker in the form of an investment in a soccer club he controlled, C.D. Marathón, and tried to launder drug proceeds through U.S. real estate transactions, prosecutors said.

Rosenthal's lawyer, Samidh Guha, said it was disappointing that prosecutors had made "unproven allegations of such an inflammatory nature" about his client.

Rosenthal "pled guilty to a single count of attempted money laundering which was not consummated. The plea was limited to this attempted transaction. No more, no less," Guha said in an emailed statement.

Rosenthal is scheduled to be sentenced on Jan. 19, 2018, Acosta on Jan. 12, 2018, and Yani Rosenthal on Oct. 13, 2017.

(Reporting by Brendan Pierson in New York; Editing by Tom Brown)