Jury Convicts Venezuelan in Suitcase Cash Case

A federal jury convicted a wealthy Venezuelan Monday of acting as an illegal foreign agent who came to the U.S. 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 delivering the verdict for Franklin Duran, 41. He faces up to 15 years in prison.

Duran, dressed in a dark suit, stared straight ahead and showed no emotion when the verdict was announced. 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 Chavez to ensure the silence of a man who carried a suitcase stuffed with $800,000 into Argentina in 2007. The U.S. said the money was a political donation to the campaign of Argentina's president.

Duran's attorney contended he was entrapped by the FBI and came to Miami only to help a friend and protect business interests.

Three other South American men previously pleaded guilty to their roles in the cover-up, including Duran's business partner, Carlos Kauffmann, 36. Kauffmann testified against Duran, laying out in detail how the pair paid bribes and kickbacks to Venezuelan officials over the past decade to become wealthy from a series of corrupt business deals.

The case was an added strain on already sour relations between Venezuela and the Bush administration. Testimony indicated it was Chavez who ordered the cover-up, directing the chief of Venezuela's intelligence service, Gen. Henry Rangel Silva, to handle it.

Chavez and Argentine President Cristina Fernandez, who was elected in October 2007, repeatedly denounced the case as politically motivated, but U.S. officials denied that. Over the weekend, Chavez announced the government would expropriate the Venoco oil business owned by Kauffmann and Duran.

Kauffman said Rangel chose him and Duran because of their longstanding ties to the man who carried the suitcase into an airport in the early morning hours of Aug. 4, 2007, in Buenos Aires, Argentina. 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 already 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 in an effort to win a high-profile conviction against a Venezuelan government deeply at odds with the Bush administration.

Duran attorney Ed 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 illegal business dealings in the future.

"They were ready, willing and able to do this," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Mulvihill.

The goal of the conspiracy, testimony indicated, was to ensure Antonini wouldn't talk about the cash suitcase by paying up to $2 million in hush money and making sure his legal troubles disappeared in Argentina. 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 another $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 new modeling and acting career that has landed her on the covers of Latin American versions of Playboy magazine.