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Businessman sentenced in Miami for suitcase cash scandal

Tuesday, March 17th 2009 - 13:46 UTC
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800.000 US dollars in cash that was found in 2007 in a Buenos Aires airport. 800.000 US dollars in cash that was found in 2007 in a Buenos Aires airport.

A Venezuelan businessman was sentenced in Miami on Monday to four years in prison for acting as an unregistered agent of Venezuela in the United States. Franklin Duran had been convicted of conspiring to cover up the origin and destination of a suitcase stuffed with 800.000 US dollars in cash that was found in 2007 in a Buenos Aires airport.

Prosecutors said the money was a secret contribution from Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez to help the presidential campaign of Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

Prosecutors said Duran led a group of South American men who came to Miami in 2007 in an attempt to cover up the source and destination of the 800.000 US dollars by silencing the carrier of the suitcase, another Venezuelan businessman and Miami resident Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson.

US District Judge Joan Lenard on sentencing said that Duran did not commit espionage against the US but acting as an illegal foreign agent is still a serious crime.

“The respect of the sovereignty of the United States is paramount,” Lenard said.

Duran has already spent 15 months in jail since his December 2007 arrest, which will count toward his four-year prison term. Lenard also fined Duran 175,000 US dollars. Duran got far less than the possible maximum sentence of 15 years, and well below the 13-plus years sought by prosecutors.

“He didn't come here as a spy against this country,” said Duran attorney Ed Shohat, who promises an appeal.

Testimony in the two-month trial raised allegations that the suitcase cash included a second suitcase with 3.5 million US dollars and was part of a gift from the Chavez government to the campaign of Argentine President Cristina Fernandez. Both Chavez and Mrs. Kirchner repeatedly denounced the prosecution claims as politically motivated, but US officials deny that.

It is not against Argentine law for foreigners to contribute to a presidential campaign, but it is illegal to do so secretly. It also is illegal to bring undeclared cash into the country.

Prosecutors claimed Duran, his business partner Carlos Kauffmann and three other men were in South Florida to ensure the silence of the man who carried the cash-laden suitcase into Argentina, Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson.

Unknown to them, Antonini went to the FBI after returning to the US and was wired to record key meetings and phone conversations. Antonini is not charged in the US, though he is wanted in Argentina on fraud charges.

Testimony indicated Duran and the others offered Antonini 2 million USD for his silence, promised to make his legal problems in Argentina disappear and to create false documents that would purport show the 800,000 USD was his.

Duran insisted his reason for accepting the mission from Venezuela's intelligence service was to quiet the burgeoning scandal and help his friend Antonini.

“Your honour, my intention was never to harm this country,” Duran said through a court interpreter in Spanish.

Kauffmann, testifying for the prosecution, said Duran was chosen for the mission by Venezuela's intelligence chief — on the orders of Chavez — because of his friendship and past business dealings with Antonini.

Duran was the only one of the group to go to trial. Kauffmann and the others pleaded guilty and were sentenced to prison, except for a fifth Venezuelan identified in court as an intelligence agent who remains a fugitive.

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