October 22, 2008
Testimony in the Venezuelan suitcase trial ended with a key witness describing rampant corruption in the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez.
Testimony turned testy on Tuesday in the Miami trial of a rich businessman accused of being a Venezuelan agent after the star witness detailed corruption in the government of President Hugo Chávez and then verbally sparred with a defense attorney.
Carlos Kauffmann said he and his partner, Franklin Durán -- who is standing trial on charges of acting as an illegal foreign agent -- paid tens of millions of dollars to senior Venezuelan officials to obtain profitable government business.
In one deal, Kauffmann said he and Durán bought a Citibank building for $4.5 million in Caracas in 2002 so the Venezuelan Finance Ministry could purchase it for $9.5 million. The partners kept about $500,000 and kicked back $4.5 million to four senior officials in that agency so they could win more public contracts, Kauffmann testified.
But on cross-examination, Durán's attorney, Ed Shohat, tried to trip up Kauffmann by suggesting that he and his partner didn't actually buy the Citibank property -- that a close friend of Kauffmann's purchased it. Kauffmann, who already had pleaded guilty in the case, accused the defense lawyer of trying to confuse the facts, bursting out at one point: ``Handle the truth. Handle the truth.''
Shohat shot back: ''Are you Jack Nicholson?'' The reference was to the actor's role on the witness stand in the movie A Few Good Men, in which he shouts: ``You can't handle the truth.''
U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard temporarily halted the testimony, removed the 12-member federal jury and lectured both Kauffmann and Shohat.
''I would say both you and Mr. Shohat are making inappropriate statements in front of this jury,'' said Lenard, who told Kauffmann to refrain from making ''gratuitous statements'' and directly answer the questions on cross-examination.
Kauffmann's testimony no doubt will stir up more controversy in the hemispheric scandal at the root of this trial, now in its eighth week. Closing arguments are planned for Thursday, with jury deliberations starting Friday.
Durán, 40, is among five men, including Kauffmann, charged last year with failing to register as foreign agents with U.S. authorities. The men were accused of coming to South Florida to hush up a business associate, Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson, who had been stopped with a suitcase filled with $800,000 in Argentina in August 2007.
Federal prosecutors allege Durán and Kauffmann tried to silence Antonini as part of a series of favors for the Venezuelan government because the cash was intended as a secret campaign gift for Argentine presidential candidate Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. She won the election.
Both Chávez and Fernández have denied the allegations -- that the money had come from Venezuela's national oil company -- and called the criminal case ``garbage.''
Lenard decided to allow Kauffmann to testify about the alleged corruption in a ruling last week because Shohat argued his client was entrapped by Antonini, who cooperated with the FBI in the investigation. Shohat said Durán traveled to South Florida to help Antonini avoid charges in Argentina for failing to declare the cash.
On Tuesday, Kauffmann testified that he and Durán paid top officials in the Venezuelan National Guard, Finance Ministry and Education Ministry to obtain government business and manage their bank accounts for large fees.
In one deal, Kauffmann said he and his partner colluded with four Finance Ministry officials on a $100 million bond sale, kicking back about $24 million to the agency officials. He identified them as Tobias Nobrega, Jesus Bermudez, Lenin Aguilera and Alejandro Dopazo.
The pair made more than $75 million on the deal, he said.
Kauffmann said he and Durán did other government bond issues and paid kickbacks to the chief of the National Guard, Gen. Victor Jose Medina, and the finance director of the Education Ministry, Julio Rivas.
He said that as partners, he and Durán split their profits on bond issues, bank fees and equipment sales to the National Guard.
He said their cozy relationship with the Venezuelan government was the main reason they came to South Florida to silence Antonini about the suitcase scandal. He stressed that the mission, if successful, would lead to ''big-time favors'' such as more public contracts.