MIAMI A U.S. prosecutor said on Monday that a Venezuelan businessman was offered $2 million to keep quiet about an alleged attempt to smuggle $800,000 from Venezuela to Argentina to help the campaign of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, now Argentina's president.
U.S. prosecutor Thomas Mulvihill made the assertion during a court hearing in the case against four men charged with acting as agents of Venezuela in an alleged scheme to cover up the source of the cash, said Alicia Valle, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami.
The men, Venezuelans Moises Maionica, 36, Franklin Duran, 40, and Carlos Kauffmann, 35, and Uruguayan Rodolfo Wanseele Paciello, 40, were charged with failing to register as agents of a foreign government, the anti-U.S. government of Venezuela. They could face 10 years in prison.
Another man, Antonio Jose Canchica Gomez, 37, was also charged but remained at large.
Mulvihill told a U.S. magistrate's court that businessman Guido Antonini Wilson was offered $2 million to keep the source of the $800,000 secret.
Prosecutors said that in taped conversations at least one of the defendants told Antonini that the money was to help finance Fernandez' campaign in the October 28 president election, which she won.
Argentina's government denied the money was for Fernandez' campaign and called the U.S. case a dirty trick aimed at smearing the president.
A magistrate granted Wanseele bail of $150,000. The others are being held without bail.
The scandal, which has rattled Argentine politics, began in August when customs agents seized a suitcase of undeclared cash from Antonini at an airport in Buenos Aires but allowed him to leave the country. Argentina later issued an international arrest warrant for him.
Argentine officials say the United States is protecting Antonini and is not getting to the bottom of the matter.
"We are trying to figure out the truth of what happened, and what we most want is the United States to extradite Antonini Wilson ... I hope the U.S. does what's needed so that Argentina can really investigate where that money came from and what it was for," Cabinet Chief Alberto Fernandez said on Monday. He is no relation to President Fernandez.
Argentina's Foreign Ministry has called in U.S. Ambassador Earl Anthony Wayne Newton for a meeting on Tuesday on the scandal.
An FBI affidavit said Venezuelan agents met Antonini, who has both U.S. and Venezuelan citizenship, when he returned home to Florida and pressured him to conceal Caracas's role in the scandal.
Antonini has not been charged. He carried the money on a jet chartered by Argentina's government to take Argentine and Venezuelan officials from Caracas to Buenos Aires.
Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez was an outspoken supporter of Fernandez in her presidential campaign and the two countries have cultivated close ties in recent years. Venezuela's oil-rich government has invested heavily in Argentine government bonds.
Chavez has backed other candidates in presidential races around Latin America. His support has sometimes boosted them but in other cases has backfired because the Venezuelan leader was seen as meddling in foreign politics.
Fernandez was widely expected to keep Argentina in the bloc of left-wing governments suspicious of U.S. policies in Latin America.
(Additional reporting by Fiona Ortiz in Buenos Aires)
(Reporting by Jim Loney, editing by Philip Barbara)