October 01, 2008
MIAMI -- The ex-partner of a Venezuelan man on trial for allegedly trying to cover up the origin of nearly $800,000 in political cash that was carried in a suitcase into Argentina testified Wednesday that both governments were deeply involved in trying to quell the scandal.
Carlos Kauffmann, 36, said he and 41-year-old Franklin Duran were tapped to handle the situation by Venezuela's intelligence service because of their longstanding relationship with the man who carried the suitcase: 47-year-old Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson, who was living in Key Biscayne near Miami.
"They wanted our assistance to contact Alejandro so this problem would be solved," Kauffmann testified. "Both governments had agreed to work this problem out. Whatever needed to be done was going to be done."
The discovery of the suitcase at a Buenos Aires airport in August 2007 triggered a political uproar in Latin America. Kauffmann and others, testifying at Duran's trial in Miami federal court, said the money came from Venezuela's state-owned oil company and was intended for the campaign of Argentina's new president, Cristina Fernandez.
Earlier testimony in the case indicated there was another suitcase on the plane containing an additional $4.2 million in political cash.
Fernandez and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez have repeatedly criticized the trial as politically motivated, which the U.S. denies. But the case is yet another blow to the strained relationship between Washington and Caracas.
Duran, a wealthy Venezuelan businessman like Kauffmann who frequently traveled to Miami, is charged with illegally acting as a Venezuelan agent in the U.S. Kauffmann and two other men have already pleaded guilty to those charges and are cooperating with prosecutors. A fifth suspect is at large.
The charges carry a maximum 15-year prison sentence.
Kauffmann, the prosecution's last major witness in the trial's fifth week, broke into tears as he described the enormous pressure he was under and the efforts he made to get his wife and children out of Venezuela and to the U.S. using fake documents.
"The media was on top of us," Kauffmann said. "It was unbelievable."
He also testified that Venezuela has frozen his assets and bank accounts. But he was prevented from answering whether the same was true of Duran. The two were equal partners in a major company, Venoco, that makes lubricants and other petroleum-based products.
If the coverup were successful, Kauffmann said he and Duran would get "new contacts, more money and more power" from the Venezuelan government, with which they had several financial dealings.
"I was asked by my government to do something and I did it," Kauffmann said. "It was going to be beneficial to us."
Kauffmann testified that it was Duran who told him the coverup was being overseen by the head of Venezuela's intelligence service, Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, with the knowledge of then-Vice President Jorge Rodriguez. The plan was to get Antonini to agree to claim that the $800,000 was his and create a false paper trail to back that up.
Previous testimony has detailed a series of meetings in South Florida restaurants and coffee shops in which the men discussed the situation, many of them monitored by the FBI using a hidden recording device that Antonini agreed to wear.
Antonini testified last week that he was told there was another suitcase on the plane in Argentina containing $4.2 million in additional political cash.
Duran attorney Ed Shohat has said his client was acting only to clear up his good name and help Antonini, his friend and occasional business partner.