July 02, 2008
MIAMI -- The strained relations between the U.S. and Venezuela have emerged as a critical issue in the upcoming trial of a wealthy businessman accused of acting as a Venezuelan agent in an attempt to cover up the source of $800,000 in cash smuggled into Argentina in a suitcase.
Attorneys for Franklin Duran, 40, contend in court filings that the charges against him are politically motivated and intended to embarrass the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.
One key witness, they say, is expected to testify that Chavez was "personally involved" in the coverup, which prosecutors contend is crucial evidence that Duran was acting as an illegal Venezuelan agent in the U.S. A spokesman for the Venezuelan government declined comment on the accusation.
At the same time, prosecutors are asking a federal judge to prevent Duran's attorneys from introducing evidence or making arguments to a jury that the case is the result of the difficult U.S.-Venezuelan relationship.
"None of the charges against Duran depends on the status of relations - good, bad or otherwise - between the United States and Venezuela. The indictment does not refer to that issue," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Mulvihill in a recent motion.
"Heaven forbid Duran's defense should state what appears to be quite obvious to everyone else," Duran attorney Edward Shohat said in a court reply.
Duran and three other South American men were arrested late last year on charges of operating in the U.S. as agents of Venezuela without registering as required. Prosecutors say they were trying to conceal the source of $800,000 smuggled by plane into Argentina, purportedly for the campaign of new Argentine President Cristina Fernandez.
Chavez and Fernandez have repeatedly denounced the prosecution as politically motivated, which the Bush administration denies.
The idea, according to prosecutors, was to enlist the help of the man who carried the suitcase, Miami resident Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson, in creating a paper trail showing U.S. sources for the smuggled money. But Antonini was already cooperating with the FBI and wore a hidden listening device at their meetings.
Three of the men have pleaded guilty and are cooperating with the investigation.
One of the men, Carlos Kauffman, said in a statement to the FBI that he was told by another defendant that Chavez was "personally involved in the matter" and had put the head of Venezuela's intelligence service in charge, according to a filing by Shohat.
This testimony, Shohat added, is directly relevant to the issue of U.S.-Venezuelan relations because Kauffman may have had "obvious and logical desire to curry favor with the U.S. government by damning the Venezuelan government" through the Chavez statement.
"The Duran defense is entitled to thoroughly explore Kauffman's motivations for testifying against Duran," Shohat said in the filing.
Both Duran and Kauffmann are longtime associates who have grown wealthy during Chavez's "Bolivarian Revolution" in Venezuela. The two are shareholders in the Venezuelan petrochemical company Venoco and have done business with Venezuela's state oil company, which helps bankroll Chavez's government. Duran also owns a multimillion-dollar waterfront mansion in Miami's exclusive Key Biscayne suburb island.
As of Wednesday, U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard had not set a hearing or ruled on the motions. Duran, who is being held without bail, is set to go to trial in early September. He faces a maximum of 15 years in prison if convicted.
Associated Press writer Ian James in Caracas, Venezuela contributed to this story.