The New York Times
September 10, 2008
MIAMI — A conspiracy to cover up the intended recipient of a suitcase filled with $800,000 in cash found in Argentina last year reached the highest levels of Venezuela’s government, with President Hugo Chávez ordering the head of his intelligence service to handle the situation, a Venezuelan lawyer testified here Tuesday in United States District Court.
The lawyer, Moisés Maionica, said that just days after the suitcase was discovered at a Buenos Aires airport in August 2007, Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, the head of Venezuela’s intelligence service, told him that Mr. Chávez was upset about the handling of the fallout by the national oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela, and had instructed General Rangel to deal with questions surrounding Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson, the man caught with the cash .
“Because there was no solution given to the matter, General Rangel was assigned by the president himself to take over all matters regarding Mr. Antonini,” Mr. Maionica, 36, said through an interpreter.
On the first day of testimony in the trial, lawyers offered vastly different versions of the exploits of Mr. Wilson, a Venezuelan-American businessman who was stopped at the airport while trying to enter Argentina with the cash-stuffed suitcase. Mr. Wilson later began working with the F.B.I. as a cooperating witness in the case.
The trial involves efforts that prosecutors say were made to coerce Mr. Wilson to lie about the nature of the cash and for whom it was intended. They say the money was a campaign contribution from the Venezuelan government to Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who was then running for president of Argentina and who was elected two months later.
In December, American prosecutors charged five men, four Venezuelans and a Uruguayan, in connection with a scheme to cover up the source of the money and its intended recipient. Four of the five suspects were arrested, and three of them have pleaded guilty.
They are expected to testify against the defendant, Franklin Durán, 40, a wealthy Venezuelan businessman and former friend and business associate of Mr. Wilson’s. Mr. Durán is charged with conspiracy and with operating in the United States as an unauthorized agent of a foreign government, Venezuela.
The fifth man charged in the case, José Canchica, a high-level Venezuelan intelligence official, remains at large.
In his opening statement on Tuesday, Thomas J. Mulvihill, an assistant United States attorney, said that Mr. Durán and others involved in the case had told Mr. Wilson in recorded conversations that they were acting on behalf of General Rangel and of Tarek El Aissami, who was then the vice minister of the interior.
Mr. El Aissami, who was appointed Venezuela’s interior minister on Monday, told reporters in Caracas on Tuesday that the trial in Miami was “a dirty campaign” and that he would not “respond to the garbage from the American empire.”
Mr. Mulvihill suggested that at one point the Argentine and Venezuelan governments had worked together to try to quell the uproar over the $800,000. At a meeting at a restaurant in Fort Lauderdale in late August 2007, Guillermo Ledesma, an Argentine lawyer and former federal judge, joined Mr. Maionica, the Venezuelan lawyer, in trying to persuade Mr. Wilson to sign over his power of attorney, the prosecutor said. That would have made it more difficult for Mr. Wilson to tell the truth about whom the money was intended for.
“Then the fix will take place,” Mr. Mulvihill said. “And you’ll hear it on the tapes. They’re very clear about the fix between the Venezuelan government and the Argentinian government. ‘This problem is going to go away. Mr. Antonini, you’re going to have a nice life. This is going to go away.’”
Edward R. Shohat, Mr. Durán’s lead defense lawyer, portrayed Mr. Wilson as a manipulative extortionist who had turned on Mr. Durán, his friend of 20 years. Mr. Durán, he said, only wanted to persuade Mr. Wilson to tell the truth and to find a lawyer in Argentina to deal with the matter.
“He did not come here as an agent of DISIP, of the Venezuelan government or of any agency of Venezuela to convince Alejandro Antonini to lie about the source or orgin or destination of that $800,000,” Mr. Shohat said, referring to the Venezuelan intelligence service, known as DISIP.
Mr. Wilson repeatedly refused to cooperate and sign a power of attorney, Mr. Shohat said. Instead, Mr. Wilson was cooperating with the F.B.I., secretly taping Mr. Durán and others. From Aug. 23 to Dec. 11 of last year Mr. Wilson recorded about 220 conversations, Christopher Wallingsford, an F.B.I. special agent, testified.
Mr. Wilson put pressure on the Venezuelan government, even trying to extort money directly from Mr. Chávez, Mr. Shohat said. At the direction of the F.B.I., he said, Mr. Wilson wrote to Mr. Chávez demanding $2 million. Maria Shohat, who is also representing Mr. Durán, said outside the courthouse that the letter was “clearly a trap.”
Mr. Shohat has said previously that American prosecutors pursued the case to try to embarrass Mr. Chávez and his government. But United States District Judge Joan Lenard, who is presiding over the trial, refused to let him argue in court that the case was politically motivated.