December 20, 2007 / 9:05 PM / 12 years ago

New accusation in Argentina "suitcase scandal"

BUENOS AIRES (Reuters) - A Venezuelan-American businessman who tried to smuggle $800,000 in a cash-stuffed suitcase into Argentina visited the presidential palace two days after the incident, an Argentine prosecutor said on Thursday.

U.S. authorities say the money, seized by Argentine customs officials in August, came from the Venezuelan government and was destined for the presidential campaign of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, who won the October election and took office on December 10.

The case, under investigation in the United States as well as Argentina, has caused an uproar in the South American country and created diplomatic tensions between Washington and Buenos Aires.

Fernandez, a close ally of U.S. critic Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, has called the charges “garbage.” Chavez has accused the United States of seeking to undermine the two countries’ relationship. Washington says its probe is not politically motivated.

Prosecutor Maria Luz Rivas Diez said a former Argentine government employee testified that the man with the suitcase, Guido Antonini Wilson, visited Argentina’s presidential palace two days after customs officials confiscated the money at a Buenos Aires airport.

“Apparently he was with other people at a sort of toast or celebration, while in another office an accord was being signed with Venezuela,” Rivas Diez told Radio Del Plata.

‘SUITCASE SCANDAL’

Argentine government officials, who allowed Antonini to leave the country but now seek his extradition from the United States to question him about possible money laundering, did not immediately comment.

The case — dubbed the “suitcase scandal” by Argentine media — erupted in August after Antonini carried the cash on a private jet chartered by Argentina’s government to ferry Argentine and Venezuelan officials from Caracas to Buenos Aires.

The government witness is a former secretary to an Argentine official who chartered the plane, Rivas Diez said. She was on the Caracas-Buenos Aires flight.

Last week, U.S. officials arrested three Venezuelans and an Uruguayan in Miami on charges of acting as agents of the Venezuelan government in a suspected scheme to pressure Antonini to cover up the source of the money.

U.S. officials have not charged Antonini, who lives in Miami and is cooperating with American investigators.

On Wednesday, Argentina’s Congress, where Fernandez’s center-left ruling coalition holds a majority, passed a resolution condemning the United States over the investigation.

Fernandez, a former first lady and senator, succeeded her husband, former President Nestor Kirchner, who has publicly accused Washington of engineering a smear campaign against his wife.

Reporting by Damian Wroclavsky; Writing by Kevin Gray; Editing by Xavier Briand

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