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Venezuelan found guilty in cash-filled suitcase case

A wealthy Venezuelan businessman was found guilty in federal court in Miami on Monday of acting as an illegal foreign agent sent to the United States to cover up his government's role in a political scandal involving a cash-stuffed suitcase smuggled into Argentina.

During the eight-week trial prosecutors argued that Key Biscayne resident Franklin Duran, 41, was working for Venezuela's intelligence service when he sought to cover up the secret donation of oil money from the Venezuelan government of Hugo Chavez to the campaign of Argentina's president, Cristina Fernandez.

The U.S government was initially accused of politicizing the case in an effort to embarrass Chavez, a vocal leftist critic of the Bush administration.

Opponents of Chavez say the case provides valuable insight into his government's illegal use of income from the country's state-owned oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, or PDVSA, to help political allies.

The charges relate to an incident in August 2007 when Duran's friend and business partner, Guido Antonini, 46, also of Key Biscayne, was stopped by a customs agent in Argentina after arriving on a private jet chartered by PDVSA. He was briefly detained after almost $800,000 in cash was found in his luggage.

Duran and four other defendants were later accused of arranging a series of meetings in the Miami area to get Antonini to lie about the origin of the cash. Unbeknownst to the defendants, Antonini wore an FBI recording device at meetings.

Venezuelan and Argentina officials have angrily denied the money was a political contribution, though they have failed to explain why the cash was on the plane. While the trial did not provide proof that the money was intended for Argentina's president, prosecutors put on a strong case linking Duran to several top Chavez officials.

Prosecutors were aided by three of the defendants who pleaded guilty and testified against Duran. One of them, Duran's business partner, Carlos Kauffmann, told jurors that the Venezuelan intelligence service sought their help to silence Antonini in return for government favors. Kauffmann admitted that he and Duran had over the years made tens of millions of dollars on public contracts after paying kickbacks to government officials.

"There is no mystery as to what happened in this case," Assistant U.S. Attorney John Shipley said in his closing arguments. Duran "came here on a mission, a mission to hide the source of the money," he said.

Duran attorney Ed Shohat argued in court that Duran was simply trying to help his friend while protecting his own legitimate oil business. He denounced the case as "a political circus," and vowed to appeal the verdict.

Duran faces a maximum of 15 years in prison at his sentencing Jan. 12.

Venezuelan found guilty in cash-filled suitcase case 11/03/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 3, 2008 10:47pm]
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