updated 12/12/2007 10:44:35 PM ET 2007-12-13T03:44:35

A suitcase filled with $800,000 brought by a Venezuelan man to Buenos Aires was intended as a political contribution to a candidate in Argentina’s recent presidential campaign, U.S. prosecutors said Wednesday.

The disclosure came in a court hearing for a criminal complaint against four men accused of being illegal Venezuelan agents who attempted a cover-up and intimidated a witness in the case. U.S. prosecutors contend the scheme involved the highest levels of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez’s government.

The complaint filed in federal court in Miami said “neither the true source nor the intended recipient of those cash funds had been disclosed.”

But Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Mulvihill said in court Wednesday that one of the men charged in the case said in conversations recorded by the FBI that Cristina Fernandez’s campaign was the intended recipient of the money.

Fernandez, the wife of former Argentine President Nestor Kirchner, won the October election and was sworn in Monday as the South American nation’s first elected female president.

Charged with failing to register with the U.S. as an agent of a foreign power are Venezuelan citizens Moises Roman Majonica, 36; Franklin Duran, 40; and Carlos Kauffmann, 35; and Uruguayan citizen Rodolfo Wanseele, 40. All will remain in custody pending a bail hearing Monday, with pleas set to be entered on Dec. 28.

If convicted, the men each face up to 10 years in federal prison and $250,000 in fines. A fifth man is still being sought, but it is not the man who brought the suitcase, Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson.

A spokesman said the Argentine president’s office had no information about the charges in Miami.

“We don’t have the slightest idea. We’re going to look into it,” said the official, who asked not to be identified.

Venezuelan Foreign Minister Nicolas Maduro called the charges “a desperate effort by the United States government using ... the judicial branch for a political, psychological, media war against the progressive governments of the continent.”

The leftist Chavez has become the Americas’ most outspoken critic of U.S. policy and the Bush administration, and once called the president “the devil” during a speech at the United Nations.

Accused of manipulating an American
Antonini, who has dual U.S.-Venezuelan citizenship, is not charged in the case and has said through a lawyer he will cooperate with an Argentine investigation. He has a home near Miami and returned there after the money was seized in Buenos Aires, officials said.

Kenneth L. Wainstein, Assistant U.S. Attorney General for National Security, said the U.S. complaint “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.”

Evidence against the men includes FBI tape recordings of conversations between some of them and senior officials in Venezuela’s office of the vice president, intelligence service and justice ministry, federal prosecutors said in court Wednesday.

Duran at one point allegedly told Antonini the matter involved “the top of the Venezuelan government,” and said his “future actions might put the life of Antonini’s children at risk.”

A call to Antonini’s telephone number Wednesday was met with a recording saying it is now unlisted.

Majonica and Wanseele asked for the court to appoint them a lawyer at a brief hearing Wednesday. The attorney for Duran and Kauffmann, Michael Hacker, said his clients were innocent.

“They have led squeaky-clean lives,” Hacker said.

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