Venezuelan IndyCar driver E.J. Viso has found himself tangled up with a corruption scandal in his home country.
The 28-year old, who drives for Indianapolis-based Andretti Autosport, has been named in media reports surrounding an investigation into allegations that racers have defrauded the government of tens of millions of dollars, by taking advantage of their ability to exchange large lump sums of currency.
Reuters reports that Venezuela’s sports minister claims the money was obtained by forging documents.
In an interview published on Thursday [Oct. 17] 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.
Venezuela’s socialist-led government strictly regulates currency exchanges. It limits the amount of currency travelers can exchange to about $3,000 each year, but athletes representing the country abroad have been allowed to exchange more to cover the costs of travel and competition.
The country’s dismal economy, and tight control of currency, has created a profitable black market for dollars.
The Associated Press reports:
Because Venezuela’s bolivar currency does not trade on global markets, Venezuelan businesses and individuals depend upon the state agency called Cadivi to obtain dollars, euros and other freely traded currencies.
Dollars have become so scarce in this oil-rich nation plagued by economic woes, including one of the world’s highest inflation rates, that they fetch on the black market more than seven times the official exchange rate.
As the investigation continues, the government has frozen currency disbursements to motorsports teams, leaving the finances of several racing teams – from Motocross to Formula 1 – in doubt.
Benitez did not name names during last week’s interview, but Venezuelan media outlets have.
Viso, who made 18 starts and recorded two top-five finishes in his first season with Andretti Autosport, is one of the highest profile drivers whose name has popped up in reports about the investigation. His primary sponsor has been state-owned Venezuelan oil company PVDSA and CITGO, which has been owned by PVDSA since 1990.
For his part, Viso said he welcomed the investigation in an interview last Wednesday with El Nacional.
Then, in a page-long, type-written statement that Viso photographed and posted on Twitter, he expressed his support of Benitez, thanked the Venezuelan government for its support of his racing career, and articulated his pride in the Bolivarian Government – a leftist social movement that was led by late president Hugo Chavez and gained popularity as champion for the poor.
Viso was scheduled to compete in the IndyCar Series season finale in Fontana, Calif. last Saturday, but did not make the trip due to an illness. His absence fueled speculation among bloggers and on social media about his involvement in the scandal, despite a statement from Andretti Autosport and this tweet from Viso, supporting his claim that he was too sick to travel.