November 04, 2008
Venezuelan Guilty of Helping Cover Up Latin American ScandalMIAMI, Nov. 3 -- A federal jury convicted a wealthy Venezuelan on Monday of acting as an illegal foreign agent, determining that he came to the United States to cover up a Latin American political scandal involving a cash-stuffed suitcase smuggled into Argentina.
U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard set sentencing for Jan. 12.
Jurors deliberated seven days -- at one point indicating they were hopelessly deadlocked -- before finding Franklin Duran, 41, guilty of foreign-agent and conspiracy charges. He faces up to 15 years in prison.
Prosecutors said during the eight-week trial that Duran and other South American men came to Miami on orders of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, to ensure the silence of a man who carried a suitcase containing $800,000 into Argentina last year. The United States said the money was a secret political donation to the campaign of a woman vying to become Argentina's president.
Ed Shohat, Duran's attorney, contended that his client was entrapped by the FBI and came to Miami only to help a friend and protect business interests. Shohat vowed Monday to appeal the verdict, calling the trial "a political circus" orchestrated by the federal government to embarrass Chávez and his allies.
"Franklin Duran is a pawn of the U.S. government," Shohat said. "We're going to continue this fight."
Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas J. Mulvihill rejected that description of the case, which has been the subject of relentless media coverage across Latin America.
"This was not a political trial. We don't engage in those," Mulvihill said.
Three other South American men previously pleaded guilty to their roles in the affair, including Duran's business partner, Carlos Kauffmann, 36. Kauffmann testified against Duran, detailing how the pair paid bribes to Venezuelan officials over the past decade to benefit financially from corrupt business deals.
The case was an added strain on sour relations between Venezuela and the Bush administration. According to the testimony, Chávez had ordered the coverup, directing the chief of Venezuela's intelligence service, Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, to handle it.
Chávez and Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, who was elected in October 2007, repeatedly denounced the case as politically motivated, but U.S. officials denied the accusation. Over the weekend, Chávez announced that the government would expropriate the Venoco oil business owned by Kauffmann and Duran.
Kauffmann said Rangel chose him and Duran because of their long-standing ties to the man who took the suitcase into an airport in Buenos Aires in the early hours of Aug. 4, 2007. That man, dual U.S.-Venezuelan citizen Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson, had returned to the Miami area after the money was discovered.
Duran and Kauffmann didn't know that Antonini had gone to the FBI and agreed to cooperate, wearing a recording device that captured several incriminating conversations at South Florida restaurants and coffee shops.
The centerpiece of Duran's defense was that the FBI used Antonini to manipulate Duran into making incriminating statements, partly to win a high-profile conviction against a Venezuelan government deeply at odds with the Bush administration.
Shohat said Antonini "went to the U.S. government believing they would jump all over his story for political reasons."
But prosecutors said Duran and Kauffmann were eager to help Venezuelan intelligence curry favor with the government in hopes of bolstering their future illegal business dealings.
"They were ready, willing and able to do this," Mulvihill said.
The goal of the conspiracy, according to testimony, was to ensure that Antonini wouldn't talk about the suitcase by being offered up to $2 million in hush money and making sure his legal troubles in Argentina disappeared. Phony documents were also produced that Antonini could use to show the $800,000 was his, not the Venezuelan government's.
Antonini testified that he was told an additional $4.2 million was on the flight to Argentina, and that there had been previous political cash-smuggling operations from Venezuela. The plane was owned by Venezuela's state-run oil company.
One of the trial's odder moments came when the airport security officer who discovered the cash suitcase, 27-year-old Maria Telpuk, came to Miami to testify. She was besieged by reporters because, after gaining fame through her discovery, Telpuk has embarked on a modeling and acting career that has landed her on the covers of Latin American versions of Playboy magazine.