State Dept: Businessman held by Bolivia is in US

12/16/2013 6:00 PM
By Associated Press

CARACAS, Venezuela (AP) — A New York businessman detained more than two years in Bolivia without charge in a money laundering investigation arrived in the United States on Monday, the State Department said, the latest twist in a saga that led to prosecutors alleging high-level corruption in the Andean nation.

A State Department official, who agreed to discuss the matter only if not quoted by name because she was not authorized to release details, confirmed only that Jacob Ostreicher had left Bolivia. The agency would give no details on his departure or travel to the U.S., the official said.

Family members had contacted The Associated Press earlier Monday saying they hadn't heard from Ostreicher in a few days and feared he had been kidnapped. Later, a brother, Aron Ostreicher, called saying Ostreicher might be in the U.S. The brother then stopped answering his phone and email.

Ostreicher's daughter, Gitty Weinberger, said Monday evening in a phone interview from her home in New Jersey that she had been informed of her father's safe arrival in the U.S. but the two had not yet spoken.

Bolivian government officials said they didn't know whether Ostreicher had left the country, but were aware of the report.

Deputy Interior Minister Jorge Perez said it would have been difficult for Ostreicher to get out, given the media attention to his case. Col. Edmundo Rivero, head of police in the city of Santa Cruz, where Ostreicher was put under house arrest, said he was checking with immigration authorities on the possibility the American left.

Ostreicher spent 18 months in a Bolivian jail without charges on suspicion of money laundering while trying to salvage a rice-growing venture. He was released a year ago and put under house arrest after actor Sean Penn and several U.S. lawmakers directly appealed to President Evo Morales to free him.

The case has resulted in Bolivian authorities implicating a judge, the initial prosecutors and lower-level officials in an alleged scheme to shake down Ostreicher and other people deemed to have deep pockets.

Ostreicher, an Orthodox Jew who has a flooring business in Brooklyn, complained from the time his was jailed in June 2011 that he was being fleeced by corrupt officials.

His case came to notice when he accused the struggling rice venture's original manager, a Colombian woman who also was jailed, of defrauding investors and falling in with a Brazilian drug trafficker.

Ostreicher charged later that prosecutors and other government employees had illegally sold 18,000 metric tons of the venture's rice and stole equipment as well as demanded a $50,000 payoff to get him out of jail.

"They robbed me of close to $50 million worth of assets," Ostreicher told the AP in an interview a year ago. He said that in addition to the rice, about 900 cattle disappeared along with 37 tractors and harvesting equipment.

Bolivian authorities have said since that 15 people had been arrested in the alleged extortion ring, including an assistant to the judicial director of the Interior Ministry.

Last June, prosecutors said two low-ranking officials among those arrested had pleaded guilty and were cooperating in hopes of serving less jail time.

___

Associated Press writer Carlos Valdez in La Paz, Bolivia, contributed to this report.


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