GERARDO REYES / CASTO OCANDO
August 31, 2008
A trial is set to begin next week in Miami federal court involving a Venezuelan man charged in the alleged coverup last year of Venezuela's $800,000 campaign donation to an Argentine presidential candidate.
The charges brought against Franklin Duran sparked intrigue among the governments of the United States, Venezuela and Argentina. It will be a case in which the alleged crimes themselves are less important than the very context in which they were reportedly committed.
Duran is one of five defendants who participated in the plot to silence a Key Biscayne man who got caught with the $800,000 in a briefcase last August after arriving in Buenos Aires on a chartered plane, prosecutors said. Each is charged with being unregistered agents of foreign governments. Three defendants have pleaded guilty; a fourth remains at large.
After Argentine officials seized the money on Aug. 4, 2007, Duran allegedly met with an unidentified Venezuelan spy agency official to hatch the coverup in South Florida.
One of the more sensitive topics to possibly emerge at trial is the transparency of elections in Argentina. The cash was allegedly sent from Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez' government and destined for the campaign coffers of Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
Federal prosecutors will also present evidence of a million dollar corruption scheme involving high-ranking Venezuelan officials.
The trial's political consequences could prove decisive in Venezuela, where regional elections are scheduled for November.
Up to now, details that have surfaced from the case implicate two Venezuelan state governors that have held their position since 2000.
High-ranking officials from the Ministry of Finance and Education are also implicated and could unearth more information regarding the alleged widespread network of corruption with Miami banking connections.
''The government is very concerned about the information that could filter out during this case, and that it will center the attention on the topic of corruption in general within the Chávez Government,'' said Nelson Bocaranda, a columnist with Caracas, Venezuela's daily, El Universal, who has exposed numerous cases of official corruption in the past.
In Venezuela, said Bocaranda, expectations are high over the trial's outcome, especially its impact on upcoming elections.
Meanwhile, Duran's defense team is alleging that the entire matter amounts to a very costly montage by the U.S. government to discredit Chávez.
Prosecutors will try to establish that Duran, a wealthy Venezuelan businessman, acted illegally on behalf of the Venezuelan government to pressure his fellow countryman, Guido Alejandro Antonini, into keeping his mouth shut about the source and purpose of the campaign cash.
The defense will counter that Duran was unaware of the 1917 U.S. law that required him to register as an agent of a foreign government and that his actions with Antonini was completely informal and simply a matter between friends.
The political implications of the trial are complex.
U.S. prosecutor Tom Mulvihill may have to revive the part of the case that created diplomatic tensions between the United States and Argentina -- specifically that the money was destined for Fernández de Kirchner's campaign.
Prosecutors initially alleged that the money found in Antonini's briefcase by Argentine customs authorities was an illegal contribution from the Venezuelan government.
Fernández de Kirchner has denounced the accusation as complete ''garbage.'' Following a meeting in February between Fernández de Kirchner and U.S. Ambassador Earl Wayne, prosecutors no longer referred to the Argentine connection.
Yet it will be hard to broach the subject during the trial, where 12 jurors will have to be convinced that the charges are serious without telling them that the money was destined for a political campaign.
Then again, even if the prosecution avoids the subject, the defense will make every effort to determine the origin and destination of the money.
The contrast between Mulvihill's emphasis on the Venezuelan origin of the money and disdain for its campaign financing destination may become evident to jurors.
Mulvihill surprised the defense in a motion filed in June. In the motion, which had been sealed until last Thursday, he asks U.S. District Judge Joan A. Lenard to allow information regarding Duran's past dealings with his partner Carlos Kauffman, a co-defendant who plead guilty to related charges and is cooperating with authorities.
According to the prosecution, both Kauffman and Duran paid bribes and kickbacks, estimated in the millions of dollars, to high-ranking Venezuelan officials and members of that nation's armed forces in exchange for contracts and financial management.
In some cases, the two men are alleged to have provided financial services to the high-ranking authorities for investing money obtained from corruption, creating fraudulent companies to justify the exorbitant amounts.
The judge has not ruled on the motion, but defense attorney charged that prosecutors are being opportunistic. They say it's another example that the United States plans to turn the matter into a ''show trial'' against Chávez.