U.S. jury convicts Venezuelan in "suitcase" plot

MIAMI Mon Nov 3, 2008 3:11pm EST

Ada Duran, sister of Franklin Duran, leaves Miami's Courthouse during the trial of a Venezuelan man accused of acting as a foreign agent in a scandal over an attempt to smuggle $800,000 into Argentina in a suitcase, in Florida September 18, 2008. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

Ada Duran, sister of Franklin Duran, leaves Miami's Courthouse during the trial of a Venezuelan man accused of acting as a foreign agent in a scandal over an attempt to smuggle $800,000 into Argentina in a suitcase, in Florida September 18, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Carlos Barria

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MIAMI (Reuters) - A Venezuelan businessman was convicted on Monday for his role in a plot to conceal what U.S. prosecutors say was an illicit contribution from his country's leftist government to the election campaign of Argentina's current president.

Franklin Duran, 41, was found guilty by a federal court jury in Miami of conspiracy and acting as an illegal foreign agent in the United States in a case dubbed the "suitcase scandal" by the Argentine media.

Duran's attorney, Ed Shohat, argued during the eight-week trial that prosecutors had pursued the case to embarrass the anti-American government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

He also told reporters, after the verdict was announced, that he would appeal the outcome of what he dismissed as a "political circus."

"Franklin Duran is a pawn of the U.S. government," Shohat said.

The lead prosecutor in the case, Thomas Mulvihill, denied any political motivations.

Duran now faces up to 15 years in prison for coming to Miami last year in a bid to cover up the origins of a suitcase stuffed with more than $800,000 that a friend of his carried off a private jet as he tried to enter Argentina from Venezuela last year.

Duran's friend, dual U.S.-Venezuelan citizen Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson, testified during Duran's eight-week trial that he unwittingly carried the suitcase into an airport in Buenos Aires last year and was unaware of its contents.

But Antonini, who has a home in Key Biscayne, Florida, later cooperated with the FBI and became a government witness.

His testimony at the trial, and clandestine FBI recordings of his meetings with Duran and other South American men involved in the case, helped prosecutors link the cash-stuffed suitcase to the Venezuelan government.

Testimony at the trial, by Antonini and two other men who pleaded guilty to U.S. charges stemming from the scandal, also helped underpin prosecutors' claims that the cash was intended for the election campaign of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, the former first lady who won Argentina's presidential election last year.

Antonini testified that he was told the $800,000 was only part of a $5 million shipment of cash from oil-rich Venezuela to the Fernandez campaign.

The U.S. government's case against Duran included allegations that Chavez personally oversaw attempts to cover up the origins of the campaign gift.

Chavez and Fernandez have both denied any wrongdoing and dismissed the Miami trial as part of a U.S. government attempt to embarrass them and tarnish their public image.

Sentencing for Duran, who sat impassively in court listening to a Spanish-language translation of the proceedings on a headset when the verdict was announced, was scheduled for January 12.

(Reporting by Tom Brown; editing by Jim Loney and Vicki Allen)

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