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Five men are accused of trying to sway Argentina's election with Venezuela's cash.
By DAVID ADAMS, Times Latin Correspondent
Published December 13, 2007
MIAMI - The Justice Department on Wednesday accused five alleged Venezuelan government agents of involvement in a politically explosive coverup of an illegal $800,000 campaign contribution to the newly elected president of Argentina.
The charges relate to an incident in August involving a Key Biscayne businessman and racing car enthusiast, Guido Antonini, 46, who was briefly detained in Argentina after arriving on a private jet carrying a suitcase stuffed with $790,500 in undeclared cash.
The five defendants are accused of trying to strong arm Antonini during a series of meetings after his return to Florida into lying about the origin and purpose of the cash, according to court documents.
The money was meant to help the "presidential campaign of Cristina Kirchner," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Tom Mulvihill. Two of the men allegedly threatened Antonini, a dual U.S.-Venezuelan citizen, telling him "his children were in danger," he added.
Kenneth L. Wainstein, assistant attorney general for national security, described the case as a Venezuelan government plot "to manipulate an American citizen in Miami in an effort to keep the lid on a burgeoning international scandal."
The charges are bound to fuel tensions between the Bush administration and the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. Opponents of Chavez are likely to view the case as proof of their long-standing belief that his government is illegally using income from the country's state-owned oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, or PDVSA, to spread socialism to other countries.
Chavez makes no secret of his financial support for allies in the region, but diverting public funds into an election campaign in Argentina could be hugely damaging to both governments. Cristina Kirchner, Argentina's first female president, handily won the Oct. 28 election and was sworn in Monday.
Four of the accused men, Moises Maionica, 36, Rodolfo Wanseele, 40, Franklin Duran, 40, and Carlos Kauffmann, 35, appeared in federal court in Miami on charges of acting as unregistered agents of a foreign government, which carries a maximum 10-year penalty. A fifth man, Antonio Canchica, 37, remains at large. Four of the men are Venezuelans, and one is Uruguayan.
The government's criminal complaint traces the chain of events back to Aug. 4 when Antonini flew by Cessna Citation from Caracas, Venezuela, to Buenos Aires.
The aircraft, chartered by the Argentinian state-owned energy firm ENARSA, carried eight passengers, including Claudio Uberti, a senior Argentine government official. Other passengers included high-level executives from PDVSA.
A scandal erupted when Argentine customs officials discovered Antonini's cash-filled briefcase.
Uberti, the main Argentine negotiator in several trade and investment agreements with Venezuela, was forced to resign. Diego Uzcategui, president of PDVSA's Argentine unit, quit too.
Government officials denied the money was a political contribution, but Antonini has never explained why he was carrying so much cash.
Prosecutors say the defendants later told Antonini that various high-ranking Venezuelan government officials, including the vice president's office, members of the Venezuelan intelligence service and a high-ranking official from the Justice Ministry, "were aware of this matter."
In one late August conversation, one of the defendants allegedly told Antonini that the matter was being handled "at the top of the Venezuelan government."
The last meeting took place Tuesday, when defendants Maionica and Duran and another individual met with Antonini to discuss the creation of false documents as part of the coverup, the complaint alleges.
Michael Hacker, attorney for both Duran and Kauffmann, said his clients committed no crime, stating they were legal Venezuelan residents of Florida involved in the oil business. Kauffman and Duran own Industrias Venoco C.A, a lubricants manufacturer, and are believed to enjoy close ties to the Chavez government.
Antonini had worked for PDVSA in the past, locating and contracting U.S. oil drilling equipment, leading to accusations that he was attempting to launder kickbacks - an allegation his lawyer denied.
Antonini has five companies registered in Florida, some of which do business with Venezuela. An investigation of Venezuelan public records by the Miami Herald found that he's also the main shareholder of Defensa y Tecnologia, a weapons provider to the Venezuelan armed forces.
The Miami Herald also reported that Duran drives Porsche sports cars with bumper stickers extolling Chavez's "21st Century Socialism." He works in Venezuela for the security equipment company Armor Holding, a subsidiary of BAE Systems, a U.S. maker of air defense equipment, according to the Herald's Spanish-language sister paper, El Nuevo Herald.
U.S. Magistrate Robert Dube refused bail, saying the men were a flight risk.
Times researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report, which used information from Times wires.
[Last modified December 13, 2007, 01:04:08]