Venezuela investigates sports stars in big currency scam

CARACAS (REUTERS) - Prosecutors in Venezuela are investigating members of its national motorsports teams for possible currency violations, officials said on Thursday, and the sports minister said tens of millions of dollars were claimed by people forging her signature.

A decade of currency controls has led to a shortage of dollars at the official rate of 6.3 bolivars (S$1.24), and huge profits for those who can access greenbacks and then resell them on the black market for about seven times that price.

Travellers can exchange up to US$3,000 (S$3,730) a year by applying to the state currency board Cadivi at the 6.3 rate, and members of national sports teams representing the country abroad have been allowed to claim more.

Some are now accused of making dozens of fraudulent requests for dollars, and then offloading a portion on the black market.

In a brief statement, the attorney-general's office said investigators from Cadivi and national intelligence agency Sebin were collecting "items of criminal interest" including documents and official seals from the Sports Ministry.

In an interview published on Thursday by local newspaper Ultimas Noticias, Sports Minister Alejandra Benitez said she discovered from a state bank that her signature had been forged on more than 60 fraudulent requests for dollars.

The fraudulent documents, she said, almost all involved motorsports and had initially escaped close scrutiny because of the high costs involved in competing.

"There was just one racer who, in a year and half, was approved for US$66 million," Benitez told the paper.

"Just two of these drivers were claiming in a year what it costs us to take the whole team of more than 600 athletes (to an event)."

She said she did not want to name the individuals involved because she wanted to respect them as fellow sportspeople.

"The case is in the hands of the security forces," said Benitez, a 33-year-old former Olympian fencer who was named as minister earlier this year.

"If any official (from the ministry) is involved, they will have to pay."

Public anger over the latest allegations is fueled by the impression that well-connected individuals were able to use their position to profit from access to lucrative dollars.

Ordinary travellers now face random checks by officials at Venezuela's main international airport to see if their documents match their requests for Cadivi dollars.

Driven by black market profits, "currency tourism" has become yet another headache for the government of President Nicolas Maduro. The economy is beset by shortages of consumer goods, and annual inflation hit almost 50 percent last month.

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