Conviction in Cash-Suitcase Case
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
MIAMI, 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.
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.
U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard set sentencing for Jan. 12.
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.