The New York Times
January 26, 2008
RIO DE JANEIRO — A Venezuelan lawyer pleaded guilty in Miami on Friday to his role in a plot to cover up the destination of a suitcase stuffed with $800,000 in cash that United States prosecutors say was intended as a campaign contribution from the Venezuelan government to Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
The lawyer, Moisés Maionica, 36, was one of five foreigners charged in December with conspiring to silence Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson, a Venezuelan-American businessman caught carrying the suitcase by customs officials in Buenos Aires.
In a case bitterly disputed by the governments of Argentina and Venezuela, a four-month investigation led American prosecutors to charge four Venezuelans and one Uruguayan with conspiracy and with acting as unregistered foreign agents of the Venezuelan government in what they said was a cover-up scheme.
Mr. Maionica admitted in federal district court on Friday to having met with Mr. Antonini and people suspected of being Venezuelan agents, and to having arranged calls between Mr. Antonini and a senior official in Venezuela’s intelligence agency, which the F.B.I. said it recorded.
Since the case broke in December, both Mrs. Kirchner and Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s president, have lashed out at the United States for its investigation into the mysterious suitcase. Both leaders have accused American officials of using the proceedings to carry out foreign policy against Mr. Chávez’s government and to try to drive a wedge between Argentina and Venezuela, which have become closer allies in recent years. Mr. Chávez’s government has gone as far as to say the entire operation was a C.I.A. plot to discredit him.
Rubén Oliva, Mr. Maionica’s lawyer, said in court that his client had been in the United States preparing to take a cruise when he received a call from a high-ranking Venezuelan official asking him to help Mr. Antonini, according to The Associated Press.
Mr. Oliva said that Mr. Maionica did not know he needed to register as an agent for a foreign government but that ignorance of the law was not a defense. Mr. Maionica pleaded guilty to both charges and answered questions from Judge Joan A. Lenard in Spanish, The A.P. reported.
Mr. Oliva declined to comment outside of court. Mr. Maionica is expected to be sentenced Aug. 4.
Legal experts familiar with the case say Mr. Maionica could prove valuable in helping prosecutors understand the origin of what they have said was hush money and in identifying the intelligence or government officials in Venezuela who directed negotiations with Mr. Antonini. His testimony in the other cases could prove highly damaging to Venezuela’s government, which has claimed to be investigating the incident as well.
The other suspects in custody are Carlos Kauffmann, 35, and Franklin Durán, 40, both of Venezuela, and Rodolfo Wanseele, 40, of Uruguay. All three have pleaded not guilty and face up to 15 years in prison and $250,000 in fines if convicted of both charges. A trial is set for March 17.
Another man charged in the case, Antonio José Canchica Gómez, who is said to be an official with Venezuela’s intelligence service, Disip, remains at large.
The case began Aug. 4 when a privately chartered plane landed in Buenos Aires. On board were eight passengers, including Mr. Antonini and four officials from Petróleos de Venezuela, the national oil company of Venezuela. The money was found in a suitcase being carried by Mr. Antonini after a customs official became suspicious.
Mr. Antonini, who did not own the suitcase, was carrying it at the request of another passenger, according to a court document filed Friday by Thomas J. Mulvihill, an assistant United States Attorney and the lead prosecutor in the case. Mr. Antonini had been invited to accompany the other seven passengers on their trip to Buenos Aires only a few hours before the plane took off in Caracas, the document said.
After being questioned at the airport in Buenos Aires, Mr. Antonini was allowed to leave after signing a paper saying he had committed a small infraction. The cash was seized by the Argentine government.
Mr. Antonini left Argentina two days later and returned to the United States. Soon after, he approached federal investigators and began wearing recording equipment supplied by the F.B.I. Thus began four months of cooperation with investigators, who recorded a series of meetings and telephone calls in south Florida involving the five suspects.
Prosecutors have said it was Mr. Durán who was recorded telling Mr. Antonini that the money was for the campaign of Mrs. Kirchner, who was elected in October. On Aug. 27, Mr. Durán identified the person who took the cash on the plane as the assistant to a high-level official of the Venezuelan oil company, according to documents filed in the case.