August 17, 2007
The top official in Argentina for Venezuela's state oil company has resigned, a new casualty in a scandal over a suitcase of cash found with a passenger on a flight of Argentine and Venezuelan oil executives.
Petróleos de Venezuela on Friday said it accepted the resignation of Diego Uzcátegui Matheus, the president of PDVSA's Argentine unit.
The executive's son, Daniel Uzcátegui Spetch, and officials from PDVSA were aboard the Aug. 4 flight from Caracas with a Venezuelan-American businessman who brought $800,000 in undeclared cash into Argentina -- and abandoned it when customs officials found the money.
Local news media have reported that Uzcátegui Spetch had several times accompanied the businessman, Alejandro Antonini Wilson, in trips around South America.
The incident set off a scandal that is rattling President Néstor Kirchner's government at a time when his wife, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, is running to replace him as president. The plane was chartered by Argentina's state energy company.
The seizure has also prompted investigations in Venezuela, where officials in President Hugo Chávez's government are denying allegations of links to Antonini.
Neither Antonini nor anyone else on the plane has said where the money came from or what it was for.
Venezuelan prosecutors have opened an investigation, and a judge in Argentina ordered Antonini's arrest on Thursday, Argentina's state-run Télam news agency reported. The judge, María Martha Novatti, did not make any public announcement, and her office told The Associated Press it would not comment on the report.
PDVSA President Rafael Ramírez has called the scandal part of ''a conspiracy'' orchestrated by the U.S. government against PDVSA and Chávez. But on Friday, PDVSA issued a statement promising to cooperate with authorities investigating the incident.
An Argentine official, Claudio Uberti, resigned last week after he was blamed for allowing Antonini to board the jet.
On Thursday, Antonini's Argentine lawyer, Héctor Vidal Albarracín, excused himself from the case, saying it had taken on an ''eminently political character'' that prevented him from continuing a strictly ''technical'' legal defense.
The lawyer previously said he was in contact with the businessman in Florida, where the U.S.-Venezuelan citizen has an apartment in Key Biscayne.