A Venezuelan oilman charged in a murky political scandal involving a suitcase stuffed with $800,000 went on trial in Miami Tuesday, accused of acting as an illegal foreign agent of Venezuela's socialist government.
Franklin Duran, 40, is alleged to have conspired on behalf of the Venezuelan government to conceal the source of the cash, seized in August 2007 at the Buenos Aires airport.
The case ignited a political storm last year when prosecutors alleged the money was provided by Venezuela's state-owned petroleum company for the campaign of Argentine President Cristina Fernandez. Venezuelan and Argentine officials have denounced the charges as "garbage," accusing the Bush administration of using the case to smear its enemies.
The "Suitcase-gate" scandal could affect municipal elections in Venezuela in November, while also adding to Fernandez's woes in Argentina, where her popularity has been damaged by a series of costly nationwide strikes.
Under U.S. law, anyone representing a foreign government in any kind of official business is supposed to register with U.S. authorities. Violation carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence, but enforcement is often overlooked with neutral or friendly governments.
In court Tuesday, federal prosecutor Thomas Mulvihill told the jury that Duran was part of a conspiracy by the Venezuelan government to buy the silence of the man who carried the suitcase, Alejandro Antonini.
Antonini, a onetime business partner of Duran and fellow resident of Key Biscayne, got cold feet early on and turned himself in to the FBI. Numerous subsequent meetings and phone calls between Antonini, Duran and others were secretly recorded.
What went on "is clear as day in the recordings," Mulvihill told the court. "They told him it was not in Venezuela's or Argentina's interest that anything come out about this."
In one tape, Duran and others even called Antonini in Miami from the headquarters of Venezuelan intelligence, the government alleges. They suggested Antonini hide the origin of the money using invoices from his own business. The FBI sought to incriminate the Chavez government by instructing Antonini to request a $2-million bribe for his role in the coverup. The court heard that Antonini sent a letter to Chavez, drafted by the FBI.
Defense attorney Ed Shohat compared the government's case to Alice in Wonderland — "completely upside down and backwards." Shohat said Duran was simply trying to help an old friend caught in a jam while also clearing his own name, which had been dragged into the ensuing media frenzy.
"This is not a case about spying. This is not a case about someone coming into the U.S. and gathering information to harm the U.S.," he said, adding that Duran was never paid for his efforts.
Three of Duran's alleged co-conspirators have pleaded guilty. The judge, Joan Lenard, has also barred the defense from arguing in court that the case is politically motivated.
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