October 21, 2008
MIAMI -- Testimony came to a combative end Tuesday in the U.S. trial of a wealthy Venezuelan businessman accused of illegally acting as a foreign agent in a Latin American political scandal triggered by the discovery of a suitcase stuffed with cash.
Carlos Kauffmann, the business partner of defendant Franklin Duran, repeatedly clashed on the witness stand with Duran's lawyer as he described his involvement with Duran in numerous corrupt, lucrative business deals in Venezuela.
At one point, Kauffmann accused defense attorney Ed Shohat of trying to confuse him and, jabbing his finger for emphasis, paraphrased actor Jack Nicholson's famous "You can't handle the truth" line from the 1992 film "A Few Good Men."
I'm going to answer it the way it is. Not the way you want," Kauffmann said, his voice rising. "Handle the truth! Handle the truth!"
"Are you Jack Nicholson?" Shohat shot back.
After a few more confrontational exchanges, U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard sent the jury out of the room, met privately with the lawyers to calm things down _ and then told Kauffmann that Shohat has a right to ask questions.
"I'm ordering you to answer the questions," Lenard said. "Yes, ma'am," Kauffmann replied quietly.
The courtroom's palpable tension after more seven weeks of trial reflected the importance of Kauffmann's testimony about the Venezuelan corruption, which prosecutors said shows jurors that Duran would not hesitate to participate in the cash suitcase cover up if asked by the Venezuelan government.
Lenard told jurors that Kauffmann's testimony could help them decide if Duran, 41, was "ready, willing and able" to take part in a scheme to cover up the source of the suitcase filled with $800,000 in cash discovered in August 2007 at an airport in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Kauffmann, 36, has already pleaded guilty to conspiracy along with two other men. Kauffmann said he, Duran and others came to Miami at the request of Venezuela's intelligence service to persuade the man who carried the suitcase into Argentina _ dual U.S.-Venezuelan citizen Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson _ not to reveal the source of the money and to create a false U.S. paper trail for the cash.
Kauffmann said he and Duran expected "big-time favors" from the Venezuelan government if the cover up succeeded.
"We needed more contacts ... we were going to make sure we would receive them," he said.
Duran, who did not testify, faces up to 15 years in prison if convicted of conspiracy and acting as an illegal Venezuelan agent in the U.S. After a day off, closing arguments are scheduled Thursday, followed by jury deliberations.
Witnesses have said the money was a gift from oil-rich Venezuela to the campaign of new Argentine President Cristina Fernandez. Both she and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez have repeatedly denounced the trial as politically motivated, something the U.S. flatly rejects.
Kauffmann took the stand after Lenard agreed to instruct jurors that they can consider a defense of entrapment for Duran. Shohat contends that Duran acted out of friendship with Antonini and was manipulated by his friend _ who was cooperating with the FBI _ into making incriminating statements that were taped by U.S. agents.
Kauffmann previously laid out the allegedly corrupt deals he and Duran handled in Venezuela in testimony last week without the jury present, and much of it is also contained in well-known public court documents.
In general, Kauffmann said he and Duran handled kickback and official budget accounts for officials with Venezuela's National Guard and education and finance ministries in return for millions of dollars in fees. One finance ministry deal netted the pair about $100 million, of which they paid $25 million in kickbacks to four government officials.