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More than $17 million of alleged bribes in a South American corruption scandal were shifted from the Bahamas into a New Zealand bank account last year. Photo / File

Melissa Nightingale

The wife of a Venezuelan Government official embroiled in an international corruption scandal has lost a bid to have more than $17 million in alleged dirty money unfrozen by police.

Police claim Andreina Gamez Rodriguez committed money laundering by bringing the $17.5m – alleged bribe money – into New Zealand.

Detectives from the Asset Recovery Unit in Waikato were alerted to a wire transfer of the money from a bank account in the Bahamas in March last year, and have since restrained the funds under the Criminal Proceeds Recovery Act.

The legislation allows a judge to grant a freezing order if there are “reasonable grounds” to believe someone has profited from “significant criminal activity”.

In this case, police allege the $17.5m is profits from Rodriguez’ husband’s criminal activity.

Luis Carlos de Leon Perez, 43, was arrested in his holiday home in Spain in October 2017 and extradited to the United States to face serious corruption charges laid by the US Justice Department.

Perez was a lawyer for Petroleos de Venezuela SA, the state-controlled oil company, and along with four others were referred to as the “management team” who allegedly received $180m in bribes to arrange lucrative contracts.

He admitted taking millions of dollars in bribes and kickbacks from contractors to win business deals with the oil company, or ensure they paid ahead of other contractors when Venezuela’s financial crisis threatened to put PDVSA into liquidation.

In July 2018, Perez pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, and one count of conspiracy to commit money laundering.

Rodriguez was living with Perez in Spain at the time of his arrest, and the $17.5m in now-frozen money was being held in a trust for her.

Rodriguez is living in the United States.

The order to freeze the money was made by a High Court Judge, but Rodriquez has unsuccessfully appealed, according to a Court of Appeal decision released today.

The first point of appeal was whether the Commissioner of Police froze the money under the correct type of order, with Rodriquez arguing he should have applied for a foreign restraining order instead of a domestic one.

But the panel of judges at the Court of Appeal rejected that.

“It cannot be the case that unless there is a request by a foreign country the Commissioner is powerless to act where there is a foreign element to alleged significant criminal activity,” the decision said.

“Such would amount to granting a licence to launder money into New Zealand from any country unlikely or unwilling to make a request to restrain.”

Rodriguez also challenged the judge’s conclusion that “significant criminal activity” as defined by the act could include foreign activity. She also appealed on the basis there were not reasonable grounds to believe she herself had committed significant criminal activity.

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She claimed the funds were legitimate and that she was estranged from her husband, but an affidavit filed by police stated she was living at an address with her husband and two children in Texas.

She had offered “no plausible explanation” to the court to explain the contradictions.

The final appeal ground was whether the Commissioner could establish Rodriguez had derived a benefit as determined by the act. The judges found she had.

The appeals were dismissed, and Rodriguez was ordered to pay costs to the Commissioner of Police.