September 09, 2008
MIAMI -- The man accused of acting as a Venezuelan foreign agent to cover up a Latin American political cash scandal was simply trying to help a friend caught in a media storm and clear his own good name, defense attorneys said Tuesday in opening arguments in federal court.
Franklin Duran, a wealthy Venezuelan businessman, is facing charges that he illegally acted as his government's unregistered agent in an elaborate scheme to conceal the source of $800,000 in political cash flown into Argentina in a suitcase seized at a Buenos Aires airport last year.
In its own statements, the U.S. government told a jury and U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard that Duran and other men were involved in the conspiracy. Prosecutors contend the men flew to South Florida to pressure the man who carried the cash to keep quiet and claim the money was his.
Prosecutors allege the money was provided by Venezuela's state-owned petroleum company for the campaign of Argentina's new president, Cristina Fernandez. Venezuelan and Argentine officials deny that accusation.
Three others have pleaded guilty and a fourth man is still at large. If convicted of being an unregistered foreign agent, Duran faces 10 years in prison.
Ed Shohat, Duran's attorney, told the jury his client was just trying to end a South American media uproar after his friend and sometime business partner, U.S.-Venezuelan citizen Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson, was stopped in August 2007 at a Buenos Aires airport and his cash-stuffed suitcase seized.
Antonini Wilson flew to Argentina aboard a chartered aircraft from Venezuela and prosecutors had said others signaled the money was intended as a contribution for the Fernandez presidential campaign that year. Both she and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez have denounced the trial as politically motivated, but U.S. officials deny that.
Shohat had said previously that trial is intended mainly to embarrass Chavez and his allies in Latin America. But the judge has refused to let him argue in court that the case is politically motivated.
"This is not a case about spying. This is not a case about someone coming into the U.S. and gathering information to harm the U.S.," Shohat said Tuesday in court.
Duran is a shareholder in Venezuela's largest private petrochemical company, Venoco, and Antonini gave Argentine authorities a business card saying he was a consultant for that company and an address belonging to Duran, the court heard.
Shohat said that was why Duran had sought to clear his name.
Shohat told the court that Duran went to his contacts in the Venezuelan government and asked for their help, but he was never paid nor accepted money from the government for his efforts.
"He goes and meets with the director of security at Antonini's request, trying to get help for his friend," Shohat said.
Duran wanted Antonini to give power of attorney to a lawyer in Argentina who could represent him in court there so the matter could be resolved, Shohat added.
But Antonini instead began working with the FBI, taping more than 200 conversations with Duran and others. Prosecutors said the tapes would show the men pressured Antonini to cooperate with them into keeping quiet about the money.
U.S. Assistant Attorney Thomas Mulvihill said prosecutors even had a tape of the men calling Antonini in Miami from the headquarters of the Venezuelan intelligence offices.
He told jurors that at the FBI's suggestion, Antonini asked for $2 million to take care of his family and for invoices that would make the cash look legitimate.
Shohat described those requests as a shakedowns of his client and the betrayal of a friend.