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U.S.: $2 million offered for suitcase silence

The man who brought a suitcase stuffed with cash to Argentina for the victorious presidential campaign was offered $2 million by Venezuelan agents to keep quiet and help cover up the source of the money, a U.S. prosecutor said.
/ Source: The Associated Press

The man who brought a suitcase stuffed with cash to Argentina for the victorious presidential campaign was offered $2 million by Venezuelan agents to keep quiet and help cover up the source of the money, a U.S. prosecutor said.

Two of the four men charged with being illegal Venezuelan agents made the offer to Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson, a dual U.S.-Venezuelan citizen who is cooperating with the FBI in the case, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Mulvihill at a court hearing Monday.

Mulvihill did not identify which two defendants are accused of making the offer, but he said Antonini's family was also threatened if he did not agree to help Venezuela's intelligence service cover up his role in bringing $800,000 to Argentina from Venezuela in August for Cristina Fernandez's campaign. She won the election.

"The problem that caused is that it became a public relations disaster," Mulvihill said. "In order to suppress that public relations disaster, the Venezuelan agents met with Mr. Antonini."

Fernandez last week angrily denounced the U.S. investigation. Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez commented for the first time Monday in a speech in Caracas, calling the charges "a big lie."

Chavez denies Venezuelan role
Chavez denied that the men jailed in Miami are Venezuelan agents. He said the case is being used by Washington to tarnish Venezuela's image and press the Argentine president to shun him.

"They are trying to pressure the president, Cristina. Why? The empire is worried about the fondness and the solidarity between the presidents of Venezuela and Argentina," Chavez said.

Chavez, who frequently uses strong anti-U.S. rhetoric, called Miami "a sanctuary of terrorism, supported by the United States government" and labeled the U.S. a "terrorist dictatorship" that presents itself as a model democracy.

He urged Latin American countries not to remain neutral, accusing the United States of seeking to undermine Venezuela's ties with its neighbors.

"I think we are arriving at the moment of definitions in Latin America, and every day ambiguous positions will be left behind," he said.

Chavez also accused Washington of spreading false propaganda suggesting Venezuela is a haven for Colombian rebels and drug traffickers. "Everyone must be reminded that you cannot be accepted by God and the Devil," Chavez said.

The latest revelation came at a pretrial hearing for the four defendants, three of whom are being held without bail. The fourth, Uruguayan Rodolfo Wanseele, was granted bail of $150,000 by U.S. Magistrate Judge William C. Turnoff, but the judge agreed to stay the order to give prosecutors a chance to appeal.

Wanseele's role in the alleged conspiracy was to drive another man — purportedly an emissary from Venezuela's government — to and from a meeting at a Starbucks coffee shop in nearby Plantation, said FBI Agent Ryan Young. Wanseele, 40, has lived in the U.S. for about eight years and works for an export-import business.

Wanseele conducted surveillance of the Starbucks meeting and afterward drove the alleged emissary back to his hotel using an extremely circuitous route that took about 40 miles to cover a seven-mile distance, Young said.

Wanseele's court-appointed attorney, Sowmaya Bhagathi, successfully argued that Wanseele deserved bail because of his apparently minimal role and because he has no prior U.S. criminal record. But Mulvihill said he was obviously someone Venezuela's intelligence service felt comfortable using in the U.S.

"He's somebody that a foreign intelligence agent comes to the United States and gets," Mulvihill said.

It was unclear if Wanseele had the money to make bail, which Turnoff said would have to come from a verifiable and legitimate source.

Wealthy Venezuelans charged
Also charged in the case are two wealthy Venezuelan businessmen with ties to Miami: Franklin Duran, 40, and Carlos Kauffmann, 35. They are being held without bail and told the judge Monday they intend to finalize arrangements to hire attorneys next week.

Duran and Kauffmann are members of a new Venezuelan elite that has grown wealthy during President Hugo Chavez's "Bolivarian Revolution" — a class dubbed the "Boli-bourgeoisie" by his critics.

The two are shareholders in the Venezuelan petrochemical company Venoco and have done business with Venezuela's state oil company, which bankrolls Chavez's government. Duran owns a multimillion-dollar waterfront mansion in Miami's tiny Key Biscayne suburb island.

The fourth defendant is Venezuelan Moises Maionica, who is being represented by attorney Lisa Hu Barquist. A bail hearing for him is scheduled for Jan. 2.

All four men are scheduled to be arraigned and enter pleas to the charges Dec. 28. If convicted, they face up to 10 years in federal prison and $250,000 in fines.