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Crime and Justice

Attorney for Alex Saab lacked U.S. legal authority to represent his client, but continued to defend him

Abelardo de la Espriella, attorney Alex Saab, has not disclosed when he gave up defending his client in compliance with the United States Department Treasury, which requires non-citizens to obtain a special license to represent sanctioned persons.
17 Jun 2020 – 11:58 AM EDT
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In July 2019, when the U.S. government sanctioned and indicted Colombian businessman Alex Saab for his alleged participation in money laundering operations resulting from corruption in Venezuela, his Colombian attorney published a press release in defense of his client.

Attorney Abelardo de la Espriella, acknowledged the sanction but asserted Saab's right "to the presumption of innocence and due process," in a statement with a letterhead bearing his name.

Saab was arrested on Friday in the Cape Verde Islands on U.S. corruption charges while en route to Iran. U.S. officials believe he holds many secrets about the allegedly corrupt financial dealings of Venezuela's socialist leader, Nicolas Maduro, as well as his family and top aides, that has impoverished the once oil-rich nation.

According to U.S. law, de la Espriella should have resigned from Saab's defense, since his immigration status as a permanent resident of the United States requires him to obtain a license from the Office of Foreign Assets of the Treasury Department (OFAC) in order to represent a sanctioned individual.

But the July statement made no mention of his having resigned. Neither de la Espriella informed of his decision in the following months despite his prolific social media reporting on his legal cases, political opinions and his videos singing opera.

De la Espriella, who run a branch of his law office in Coral Gables, has been a permanent resident of the United States since June 19, 2017, according to the Green Card known by Univision.

Therefore he is required to obtain the OFAC license for any activity on Saab’s favor anywhere in the world, OFAC told Univision.

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De la Espriella told Univision that he had resigned from Saab’s defense but did not say when he filed the paperwork.

Yesterday De la Espriella declined an interview for W Radio arguing that he no longer represents Saab.

According to Julio Sánchez Cristo, director of the station newscast, De la Espriella told him that since he is a U.S. resident and the law “doesn’t allow him to have contacts with those type of clients." Another reporter from La W added that De la Espriella told her that he needed a license to speak or have contact with a person who is on the so-called 'Clinton List' of persons sanctioned by the Treasury Department.

An official from OFAC responded to Univision last December in an email that "the resident or citizens has to comply with United States sanctions regulations wherever he or she may be, including in a non-U.S. country."

On June 2, de la Espriella answered a Univision email inquiring about his license. "Since last year when Saab was included on the OFAC list and charges were filed against him in the United States, I stopped attending to his cases in Colombia, given my status as an American resident," he replied.

And he added: "I also quit Saab's defense, as stated in the respective cases in Colombia."

The lawyer explained that he would have been required to obtain a license to collect legal fees that Saab still owed him, but he declined to file the request with the Treasury Department and "preferred to lose the money."

OFAC explained to Univision that attorneys who are not residents or citizens of the United States may represent a sanctioned person, as long as the payment doesn’t go through the United States banking system and "a United States citizen or resident is not involved in any way."

De la Espriella declined to comment on this possible impediment in the event that an attorney for his firm is representing Saab. In that case the fees would go to the firm of which de la Espriella is the main shareholder.

The lawyer accused Univision of harassing him adding, "you haven’t forgiven me for suing you and standing up to you."

In 2017, Saab sued Univision and reporter Gerardo Reyes in Miami-Dade County court for defamation following an article by the reporter about the Saab's past and his partner, Alvaro Pulido. The lawsuit was dismissed by a judge in December 2019.

De la Espriella filed another lawsuit in the same court in 2018, also for slander against Univision news president Daniel Coronell, in response to an opinion column published in Colombia's Semana magazine about the lawyer. The lawsuit is ongoing.