The New York Times
September 08, 2008
MIAMI — American prosecutors are seeking to introduce evidence in a federal trial that revolves around a suitcase filled with $800,000 in cash to show that the defendant, Franklin Durán, got rich through a string of illicit schemes involving Venezuelan officials that netted him and a partner more than $100 million.
The accusations of rampant corruption involving Mr. Durán, a Venezuelan businessman, which are laid out in court documents, could make the government of President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela a central focus of the trial. Opening statements are scheduled to begin here on Tuesday in United States District Court.
The case involves accusations that a group of Venezuelan businessmen tried to pressure Guido Antonini Wilson, a Venezuelan-American businessman who was caught with the suitcase in Buenos Aires in August 2007, to cover up the true purpose of the $800,000.
Prosecutors contend that the money was intended to be a campaign contribution from Mr. Chávez to Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who was running for president of Argentina and was elected two months later.
Mr. Wilson returned to Florida after being caught with the money in Argentina. He approached the F.B.I. about pressure he said he was receiving to remain silent.
Mr. Wilson agreed to wear a recorder and lured the Venezuelans to a series of meetings that were videotaped by investigators. In December, prosecutors announced that five men — four Venezuelans and an Uruguayan — had been indicted, accused of participating in the cover-up. Four of them were soon arrested and the fifth suspect, Antonio José Canchica, a high-ranking member of Venezuela"s intelligence service, remains at large.
They were charged with illegally serving as agents of a foreign government, Venezuela. Three of the four men who were arrested, including Carlos Kauffmann, Mr. Durán"s business partner, have pleaded guilty and are expected to testify.
Mr. Wilson, who prosecutors say was threatened with physical harm and was offered a bribe of $2 million, is likely to be the first major witness to testify.
The trial could heighten tensions between the American and Venezuelan governments. The case has drawn angry reactions from Mr. Chávez and Mrs. Kirchner, who accused the Bush administration of trying to drive a wedge between Argentina and Venezuela, which have grown closer in recent years.
In court documents, prosecutors argue that Mr. Durán and Mr. Kauffmann were motivated to help the Venezuelan government in the cover-up because of a long history of illicit dealing with Venezuelan officials. The men began working together about 10 years ago, the documents said, and they own fancy Florida homes and enjoy racing cars.
According to court filings, Mr. Durán and Mr. Kauffmann received fees from members of the Venezuelan National Guard for handling kickbacks from companies doing business with the National Guard. They took fees for directing money from the Cojedes state government to a bank, the court documents said. They also paid kickbacks to a high-level government official to protect their construction projects, according to the documents.
The recipient was Gov. Jhonny Yánez Rangel of Cojedes, according to a person briefed on the case. A spokesman for Mr. Yánez Rangel said Monday that he was unavailable for comment.
In addition, they received $30 million in construction contracts in the state of Vargas and gave 10 percent of the money to two high-level officials, prosecutors said in court filings.
Judge Joan A. Lenard of the United States District Court has not yet ruled on the admissibility of these accusations in court.
Edward Shohat, Mr. Durán"s lawyer, said in court filings that the accusations of previous suspect dealings were irrelevant. He has also said in court documents that American officials pursued the case to try to embarrass the Chávez government.