The New York Times
November 01, 2008
MIAMI — After weeks of testimony about a suitcase stuffed with illegal campaign contributions bound for Buenos Aires, a federal jury here remains undecided about the role of a Venezuelan businessman.
The businessman, Franklin Durán, is charged with conspiracy and with operating in the United States as an unauthorized agent of a foreign government.
Prosecutors say that Mr. Durán, who owns a house in the Miami area, came to the United States at the behest of the Venezuelan government to coerce a friend to conceal the source and destination of an $800,000 cash contribution to the 2007 campaign of an Argentine presidential candidate, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who went on to win the election.
Jurors have deliberated for seven days but remain deadlocked. Earlier this week they sent a note to Judge Joan A. Lenard saying they were at an impasse.
Judge Lenard instructed them to continue deliberating.
Both Ms. Kirchner and her Venezuelan counterpart, President Hugo Chávez, have denied any role in the matter, which has made headlines in Latin America.
The jury’s impasse has prompted some Venezuelans to speculate in news blogs and Internet chat rooms that the Chávez administration is somehow manipulating the jury to prevent a guilty verdict.
“If he is found guilty, those that are anti-Chávez will be happy,” said Laura Weffer, an investigative reporter for the leading Venezuelan newspaper El Nacional, who has covered the Durán trial from its inception in September. “But if there is a mistrial, they will say he bought the jurors.”
Among those testifying at the trial was Maria Lujan Telpuk, the former Argentine police officer who discovered the money-laden suitcase in the airport in Buenos Aires and later capitalized on her fame by posing naked for the Latin American edition of Playboy magazine.
During the trial prosecutors also played secretly recorded phone conversations between Mr. Durán and others.
Among the conversations recorded by the Federal Bureau of Investigation were those between Mr. Durán and his friend Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson, who was carrying the suitcase, filled with $800,000 in $50 bills, when he was stopped on Aug. 4, 2007.
Stripped of the money, Mr. Wilson returned to South Florida, where he has a home, and approached the Federal Bureau of Investigation to become a witness for the agency. Mr. Wilson was paid $30,000 by the bureau for his services, according to testimony at the trial.
Mr. Durán’s lawyers contend that he became involved in the case to help Mr. Wilson, and not at the behest of Mr. Chávez or Venezuelan intelligence.
“Everything Franklin Durán did, he did for himself, and for his best friend in the world, Alejandro Antonini,” Ed Shohat, Mr. Durán’s lawyer, said in his closing remarks last week.
“Just because the Venezuelan government wants the same thing,” he added, “doesn’t mean Franklin Durán is working as an agent of the Venezuelan government.”
Mr. Shohat had said that American prosecutors pursued the case to try to embarrass Mr. Chávez and his government.
Three other men have pleaded guilty to their roles in trying to cover up the affair. Two of the men testified on behalf of the prosecution.
Deliberations could continue until late next week, a defense lawyer said, as the jurors will convene for an abbreviated session on Monday and be pardoned from court altogether on Tuesday because two jurors have a conflict that day.