December 08, 2008
A wealthy businessman accused of participating in a South Florida coverup of Venezuela's $800,000 donation to an Argentine presidential candidate was sentenced to 15 months in prison on Monday for conspiring as an illegal foreign agent in the United States.
Carlos Kauffmann, a partner in Venezuela's largest privately owned oil company, cut a plea deal earlier this year that required testifying against a former business partner, Franklin Durán, at his federal trial in Miami this fall. Durán was convicted of conspiring and acting as an unregistered Venezuelan agent.
For that cooperation, Kauffmann, 37, received a prison term far less than the five-year maximum sentence on the conspiracy charge. He was also fined $25,000 by U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard.
Kauffmann, who has been in custody since his arrest last December, is expected to be released early next year.
He testified about the partners' paying heavy bribes to Venezuelan officials in exchange for multimillion-dollar government contracts -- the corrupt backdrop to the pair's ultimate favor to assist the country's spy agency in the coverup in South Florida.
But in court papers, Kauffmann is described as a ''minimal participant'' in the South Florida plot to silence a Key Biscayne business associate who got caught with the campaign money in Argentina. Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson was a passenger on a privately chartered plane that delivered the cash to Buenos Aires in August 2007.
The cash, stuffed in a suitcase, didn't belong to Antonini, but rather to Venezuela's national oil company. Federal prosecutors said it was a Venezuelan campaign gift for then-candidate and now Argentine president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.
The Miami case stirred up a hemispheric political scandal last December when prosecutors charged Kauffmann, Durán and three others with the Venezuelan coverup, including traveling to South Florida as unregistered foreign agents. Prosecutors also said the men were allegedly directed by Venezuela's spy agency.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, along with Fernández, has strongly denied the allegations.
Kauffmann, whose oil company did substantial business with U.S. companies, was the second defendant to plead guilty in the controversial case.
A co-conspirator who helped coordinate the coverup, Venezuelan lawyer Moises Maionica, 37, was the first. He pleaded guilty to charges of conspiring and acting as an unregistered agent for the Venezuelan government. He was sentenced to two years in prison last week.
Prosecutors have portrayed Kauffmann's business partner, Durán, as the ring's alleged leader. Durán, 40, was accused of plotting with a high-ranking official in Venezuela's spy agency, DISIP, to pressure Antonini into keeping his mouth shut about the source and purpose of the campaign cash.
After Argentine officials seized the money in August 2007, Duran allegedly met with an unidentified DISIP official to hatch the coverup in South Florida.
''The DISIP official further stated that the government of Venezuela wanted the assistance of Antonini in concealing the source and destination of the seized funds,'' according to a statement filed with Kauffmann's plea agreement.
``Franklin Durán assured the DISIP official that [Durán] had Antonini under his control.''
Durán later told Kauffmann about the plan, according to the statement.