October 24, 2008
Lawyers are expected to finish their closing arguments Friday in the Miami federal trial of a man accused of working as an agent for Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez in a conspiracy to silence an international scandal over a cash-filled suitcase.
The jury may not begin deliberating until late Friday.
On Thursday, Franklin Durán, the wealthy Venezuelan businessman on trial in Miami, listened impassively as the prosecution argued that he was at the center of an attempt to hide the origins and destination of the cash that was discovered in an Argentine airport -- money that the prosecution alleges was a gift from the Venezuelan government to the campaign of Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
During the trial, Durán's business partner, Carlos Kauffman -- who already pleaded guilty to playing a role in the alleged conspiracy -- testified that the pair's multimillion-dollar business deals in Venezuela were built on an extensive network of bribes to government officials, and that they expected to obtain more lucrative business in exchange for their help in hushing up the scandal.
Durán, 40, would receive ''big time favors'' for his cooperation, Assistant U.S. Attorney John Shipley argued Thursday.
''He was up here on a mission, a mission from the [Venezuelan] government,'' Shipley said. ``Durán was ready, willing and able to commit these crimes.''
Defense lawyer Ed Shohat said that Durán had personal motivations for attempting to end the scandal, chief among them a desire to help his friend, Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson, the Key Biscayne resident who was stopped in Argentina in August 2007 with the $800,000 in alleged campaign cash. Antonini was traveling with a group of Argentine and Venezuelan officials at the time and said in the trial that he had been carrying the suitcase for another passenger.
''Everything [Durán] did, he did for himself, for Kauffman, and . . . for his best friend in the world, Alejandro Antonini,'' Shohat said. ``He was not acting as a government agent.''
The investigation that led to Durán's arrest came after Antonini returned to Miami in the days after the cash was discovered. He went to the FBI and agreed to wear a wire. Durán, Kauffman and two other men -- Moises Maionica and Rodolfo Wanseele Paciello -- were later arrested, and all but Durán pleaded guilty and cooperated with the prosecution. A fifth man, José Canchica Gómez, was charged in the case and is still at large.
Durán is charged with conspiracy and acting as an unregistered government agent. He faces up to 15 years in prison if he is convicted.
Journalists from several Latin American countries have covered every development in his seven-week trial, which has deepened the tensions in U.S.-Venezuela relations.
Shohat called Antonini's taping of Durán the ''ultimate betrayal,'' saying Antonini did it because he wanted the U.S. government to protect him from extradition to Argentina for customs charges related to the cash-filled suitcase.
Shohat will continue on Friday with his argument that the government entrapped Durán. The prosecution already addressed that argument Thursday, calling it ''absolute nonsense'' because Durán was ''already committing the crimes'' by pressuring Antonini when the FBI got involved and began taping their conversations.