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5 charged in alleged plot to fund Argentine candidate

The U.S. says the men concealed their role in a Venezuelan bid to send $800,000 to President Fernandez's campaign.

December 13, 2007|Patrick J. McDonnell | Times Staff Writer

BUENOS AIRES — U.S. authorities have charged five foreign men as unregistered Venezuelan agents in connection with an alleged scheme to smuggle $800,000 to the election campaign of newly inaugurated Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, federal officials in Miami said Wednesday.

The defendants, four of whom have been arrested in South Florida and appeared in court Wednesday, stand accused of trying to conceal the source and destination of the cash that was seized in August in a suitcase at an airport here, according to a complaint filed in U.S. District Court in Miami.

The four men in custody include three Venezuelan citizens and a Uruguayan national. Another Venezuelan suspect remained at large.

Though Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is not mentioned in the U.S. complaint, the case links officials of his petro-dollar-rich government with the alleged electoral conspiracy.

Federal prosecutors allege that the defendants said high-ranking Venezuelan authorities -- including officials in the vice president's office, the intelligence directorate and the Justice Ministry -- were aware of efforts to hush up the aborted $800,000 campaign contribution. Rumors of Venezuelan bagmen dispensing bundles of cash to pro-Chavez candidates across Latin America have swirled for some time. But Chavez, who has bestowed lavish foreign aid to Argentina and other allies, has consistently denied making illicit campaign contributions.

A central figure in the current case, South Florida businessman Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson, allegedly transported the cash-filled suitcase to Buenos Aires from the Venezuelan capital, Caracas. He has not been charged with a crime, however. A U.S. official would not comment when asked if Antonini, who holds joint U.S. and Venezuelan citizenship, was a cooperating witness.

Antonini returned to Florida after the cash was seized in August.

"The complaint filed today outlines an alleged plot by agents of the Venezuelan government to manipulate an American citizen in Miami in an effort to keep the lid on a burgeoning international scandal," Kenneth L. Wainstein, assistant attorney general for national security, said in a statement.

Federal law requires that anyone acting on behalf of a foreign power notify U.S. authorities. The five have been charged with failing to do so.

There was no immediate comment from the Venezuelan or Argentine governments, which previously denied any knowledge of the source or purpose of the cash.

An FBI affidavit outlines a cloak-and-dagger tale of secret rendezvous, threats, code words and assurances to Antonini that he "would be skillfully . . . helped" if he cooperated with Venezuelan conspirators. The suspects sought out Antonini and pressured him to conceal the true source of the cash, the complaint says.

According to the affidavit, Antonini was informed in August that "the consequences" of a failure to cooperate "might put the life of Antonini's children at risk."

He was told that both Venezuelan and Argentine authorities would pursue Antonini if he said the funds did not belong to him, the affidavit says.

One of the those arrested allegedly informed Antonini that if he did cooperate, the Venezuelan national oil company, Petroleos de Venezuela, "would pay for all the expenses and financial penalties that Antonini might incur."

During a meeting in Ft. Lauderdale on Monday, Antonini was allegedly briefed by two of the suspects on "the creation of a false paper trail to conceal the true source and purpose" of the money.

Questions have lingered for months about the source and planned destination of the mysterious $800,000. The cash was found in Antonini's luggage after he arrived from Caracas on a private jet chartered by Argentina's state energy company.

The money was seized two days before a state visit by Chavez to Argentina. A mini-scandal erupted, and the government here dismissed one official implicated in allowing Antonini on the jet.

In recent weeks, the case, sometimes dubbed "Suitcase-gate," had faded from the headlines. But that changed Wednesday.

Though U.S. authorities did not shed light on the origin of the money, officials said they had discovered its destination -- the Argentine presidential campaign. Fernandez was a runaway winner in the Oct. 28 balloting.

In a court hearing Wednesday in Miami, Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas J. Mulvihill said a recorded conversation indicated the cash was destined for Fernandez's campaign. She was sworn in to office Monday, succeeding her husband, Nestor Kirchner.

Both Fernandez and Kirchner, center-left populists, have been strong allies of Chavez, who has committed more than $4 billion to Argentina's economic recovery from a 2001-02 financial meltdown.

Charged in the case were Venezuelans Moises Maionica, 36; Antonio Jose Canchica Gomez, 37; Franklin Duran, 40; Carlos Kauffmann, 35; and Uruguayan Rodolfo Edgardo Wanseele Paciello, 40. Canchica remains a fugitive. If convicted, all face up to 10 years in prison and fines of $250,000 each.

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patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

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