JOSÉ DE CÓRDOBA / JOEL MILLMAN
Wall Street Journal
March 10, 2008
March MIAMI -- In December, Venezuelan multimillionaire Franklin Duran told agents from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation that he loved traveling to his mansion on the wealthy island enclave of Key Biscayne to "scuba dive, swim with the dolphins and have peace of mind."
Peace of mind for Mr. Duran may be hard to find these days. The owner of Industrias Venoco CA, a leading Venezuelan petrochemical company and lubricants manufacturer, is being held without bail in Miami on charges related to a cash-stuffed suitcase at the center of an international scandal involving the U.S., Argentina and Venezuela. He could face up to five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.
After his December arrest, Mr. Duran was interviewed by FBI agents. In the FBI's account of the interrogation, a copy of which was reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, he described widespread corruption in the Venezuelan government of Hugo Chávez. At one point in the interview, according to the FBI account, Mr. Duran says his rise as a businessman was paved by bribing "politicians, government officials, and high ranking officials."
Mr. Duran's statements also provide a fascinating glimpse into Venezuela's "Boli-burgueses," or Bolivarian bourgeoisie, a class of newly rich businessmen who share an extravagant lifestyle, boast close ties with Mr. Chavez's government and its self-proclaimed "Bolivarian Revolution," and make Miami their playground of choice.
According to the FBI account of the interrogation, Mr. Duran says the only thing he is guilty of is "having lots of money, successful businesses, many lady admirers and expensive cars."
The case against Mr. Duran, 40 years old, and three co-defendants stems from the August discovery at the Buenos Aires airport of a suitcase stuffed with $800,000 in cash flown in on a private jet from Venezuela. U.S. prosecutors say the money came from the Venezuelan government and was destined for the presidential campaign of Argentina's Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Ms. Fernández, now president, denies the accusation.
Mr. Duran wasn't on the plane. But the U.S. government says that he and four other men flew to Miami in the months after the discovery to pressure the man caught with the suitcase, a Venezuelan-American named Guido Antonini, to cover up the source and destination of the money. The men are accused of acting as unregistered agents of the Venezuelan government in the U.S.
Edward Shohat, Mr. Duran's lawyer, says his client is innocent. In court filings, he said the prosecution is an attempt by the U.S. to smear Venezuela's government. In the filings, the lawyer says Mr. Duran was merely giving advice to Mr. Antonini.
Two of Mr. Duran's co-defendants, including his business partner in Venoco, Carlos Kauffmann, have pleaded guilty to the charges in the case, which in Latin America has been dubbed "Maleta-gate," or "Suitcase-gate."
A former auto mechanic from a lower-class family, Mr. Duran has tried his hand at all kinds of businesses, including selling weapons and riot-control equipment to Venezuela's government. He won control of Venoco after its former chief executive took part in a 2002 coup attempt against Mr. Chávez.
During his talk with the FBI, Mr. Duran was nonchalant -- and chatty. He even waived his right to counsel. When FBI agents warned him it was a crime to lie to federal officials, he disagreed. "Former President Clinton and President Bush didn't get into trouble for lying," Mr. Duran told the agents, according to the FBI's account.
Like many of the Bolivarian bourgeoisie, the young businessman flaunts his wealth and fast-paced lifestyle. He owns a $4.6 million waterfront mansion in Key Biscayne, just a few miles from the downtown Miami detention center where he now spends his days. Last year, Mr. Duran totaled a $600,000 Porsche Carrera GT in the Gumball 3000 millionaires' road rally in Europe. His driving partner was Mr. Antonini, the man caught with the suitcase. Also taking part in the rally was the Venoco co-owner, Mr. Kauffmann, driving a $500,000 McLaren Mercedes SLR.
Mr. Duran, Mr. Kauffmann and Mr. Antonini were all close friends and partners. Mr. Antonini acted as Mr. Duran's "CEO in the U.S.," according to the FBI document. The three shared a love for fancy cars. Mr. Antonini even drove a Porsche Boxster with a bumper sticker that extolled Mr. Chávez's socialist revolution. "Venezuela is now for everyone," it said.
Mr. Duran's fortunes soared after Mr. Chávez came to power in 1999. In 2002, Messrs. Duran and Kauffmann bought Venoco from its owners shortly after the company's chief executive, Pedro Carmona, took a lead role in a failed coup attempt against Mr. Chávez. During the coup, Mr. Carmona named himself "interim president" until Mr. Chávez retook power two days later. Mr. Carmona is still jokingly called "Pedro the Brief."
After Mr. Chávez regained power, his government cut off supplies to Venoco of oil derivatives that it needed to make its lubricants, and hit the firm with surprise tax audits, making the company's owners eager to sell. "[It was] practically being given away," recalled Mr. Duran to his FBI interviewers, explaining his purchase.
In the FBI's account of the interview, Mr. Duran said that his company's value has tripled since the purchase thanks to his government contacts and an almost "symbiotic" relationship with state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA, or PDVSA. Last year, Venoco bought a concession to supply 49 service stations in the country from Exxon Mobil Corp. after the Texas company decided to leave Venezuela over Mr. Chávez's nationalistic oil policy.
Mr. Duran said his business is helped by an intimate relationship with Venezuela's intelligence services, where he knows "everybody." According to the interrogation account, he told agents that another key to his success is his habit of paying off important Venezuelan officials, including "politicians, government officials, and high-ranking officials." Mr. Duran didn't want to name names because of "fear of retaliation," the statement said.
A spokeswoman at Venezuela's embassy in Washington said that she wasn't authorized to comment on Mr. Duran's allegations of generalized corruption within the Venezuelan government.
Despite his rise, Mr. Duran showed disdain for Venezuela's political masters -- and his benefactors. "Venezuela is being governed by ignorant and uneducated people," he told the agents, according to the statement.
Mr. Duran's lawyer, Mr. Shohat, wouldn't confirm that Mr. Duran had made those statements to the FBI, saying, "It's what the FBI said he said." Mr. Shohat added: "I don't see the post-arrest statement as problematic."
Mr. Duran has come under scrutiny by law enforcement before. A decade ago, U.S. and Venezuelan authorities investigated him for drug-money laundering, records show. Two federal grand juries in the U.S. heard testimony concerning Mr. Duran's alleged money-laundering activities, according to three people with knowledge of the matter and a review by The Wall Street Journal of extensive legal correspondence. U.S. authorities received detailed information on at least $13 million of suspicious financial transactions made by Mr. Duran and his associates from 1998 to 2001, according to the documents.
Mr. Duran was never charged, says Mr. Shohat, who declined to discuss the substance of the money-laundering allegations. Grand-jury proceedings are secret, and it wasn't possible to determine the outcome of the investigation.
In trying to persuade the judge in his current case to allow him bail, Mr. Duran offered to hire a reputable security company to monitor himself. The judge ruled that Mr. Duran, who owns a private jet, is a flight risk, and denied him bail.