October 23, 2008
MIAMI -- A wealthy businessman came to the U.S. on an illegal mission, approved by Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and directed by Venezuela's intelligence service, to defuse a Latin American political scandal triggered by the discovery of a suitcase crammed with $800,000, a federal prosecutor said Thursday.
Franklin Duran, 41, conspired with other South American men to conceal the Venezuelan source of the cash as well as its intended destination: the 2007 campaign of new Argentine President Cristina Fernandez, said Assistant U.S. Attorney John Shipley.
"The Venezuelan government had a problem, directed Franklin Duran to assist, and he did so," Shipley told jurors in closing arguments at Duran's eight-week trial. "Ladies and gentlemen, it isn't complicated. There's no mystery."
Defense attorney Ed Shohat, however, insisted that Duran was never a Venezuelan agent and said he had personal and business reasons to get involved in the suitcase scandal, which had swept up his friend and associate of two decades _ Miami resident Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson.
"Everything Franklin Duran did, he did for himself, and for his best friend in the world, Alejandro Antonini," Shohat said. "Franklin Duran was not working for the government of Venezuela."
Duran faces up to 15 years in federal prison if convicted of conspiracy and failing to register with U.S. authorities as a Venezuelan agent. Three other men, including Duran's closest business partner, have already pleaded guilty to roles in a scandal that has been front-page news for months in Latin America and further strained U.S.-Venezuela relations.
Jurors were scheduled to begin deliberations Friday, after Shohat finishes his argument and prosecutors make a brief final statement.
Shohat said Duran was trying to help Antonini, a dual U.S.-Venezuelan citizen, escape legal and political problems that erupted after Antonini carried the cash-stuffed suitcase into an airport in Buenos Aires on Aug. 4, 2007. The bag was brought on a flight carrying officials from Venezuela's state-run oil company.
Antonini contacted the FBI soon after returning to Miami from Argentina and began wearing a hidden recording device. He was eventually paid $30,000 for his efforts.
Shohat claimed Antonini did that to exact revenge on Duran over a business dispute and that the FBI wrongly entrapped Duran into making incriminating statements by manipulating what Antonini was saying in their meetings in South Florida restaurants.
"The government has misled you in this case," Shohat told jurors.
Shipley, however, pointed to FBI tapes in which Duran insisted he was in regular direct contact with Venezuelan intelligence chief, Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, about the suitcase scandal. On one recording, Duran said Chavez had given Rangel responsibility for making the matter disappear.
Duran's business partner, 36-year-old Carlos Kauffmann, testified they were eager to help to make sure their series of multimillion-dollar, corrupt deals involving kickbacks with senior Venezuelan officials would continue and grow. Kauffmann has pleaded guilty to conspiracy and is awaiting sentencing likely to be lighter because of his key testimony.
"Franklin Duran knew perfectly well what would come if they pulled off this mission," Shipley said. "The riches await him."
Since Antonini lived in ritzy Key Biscayne near Miami _ an island where Duran also owns a mansion _ the plan was for Duran and others to promise Antonini $2 million in Venezuelan hush money, create a paper trail indicating the $800,000 was Antonini's, and get Antonini to authorize an attorney in Argentina to fix legal problems created by discovery of the cash.
Antonini testified that he was told the $800,000 was only part of a $5 million shipment of cash from oil-rich Venezuela to the Fernandez campaign and that previous such shipments had occurred. For their part, Chavez and Fernandez have repeatedly denounced the trial as a politically motivated attempt by the U.S. to embarrass them