Page last updated at 01:04 GMT, Saturday, 18 October 2008 02:04 UK

US court told of Venezuela graft

Guido Antonini Wilson leaves the Federal Court in Miami (23/09/2008)
Mr Antonini says he did not know he was carrying the money

The partner of a Venezuelan businessman accused of being an illegal agent in the US has said they made millions of dollars through government corruption.

Carlos Kauffmann told a Miami court he and Franklin Duran had bribed officials in Venezuelan states and ministries.

Mr Duran is accused of having tried to cover up the case of a businessman who was stopped in Argentina last year with $800,000 (430,000) in a suitcase.

Venezuela allegedly sent the cash to fund the president's election campaign.

Both Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner and her Venezuelan counterpart, Hugo Chavez, have denied any involvement.

Mr Chavez has also accused the US government of working to discredit Venezuela internationally. Washington has denied the claim.

'The way things work'

At the trial in Miami, Mr Kauffmann testified that he and Mr Duran had wanted to help Venezuela quell the international criticism triggered by the case, dubbed "suitcase-gate", in order to keep their corrupt businesses going.

Mr Kauffmann said they had made tens of millions of dollars by using a system of bribes and pay-offs since 1998 from contracts with the national guard, the education and finance ministries, and the states of Vargas and Cojedes.

They do a favour for the official, the official does a favour for them - one hand washes the other
US Prosecutor Thomas Mulvihill

"That's the way things work down there," he told the court, adding that the profits of the illegal deals were split "half and half".

The FBI also said Mr Duran had told its agents after his arrest that he had been "able to succeed in Venezuela because he pays off politicians, government employees and high-ranking officials".

Prosecutor Thomas Mulvihill said the evidence clearly showed that Mr Duran had come to Miami to cover up the source of the suitcase of cash at the request of the Venezuelan intelligence service.

"They do a favour for the official, the official does a favour for them," Mr Mulvihill said. "One hand washes the other."

Lawyers for Mr Duran say he was set up by the FBI through an associate, Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson, the Florida-based businessman who was found to be carrying $800,000 in cash on arrival at Buenos Aires airport in August 2007.

Although the undeclared money was confiscated, Mr Antonini, who holds dual Venezuelan-US nationality, was not charged with any crime and was able to return home to Florida.

Soon after he returned, Mr Antonini agreed to co-operate with US investigators and be secretly recorded and photographed as he met Mr Duran, Mr Kauffmann and three other men in south Florida.

Concealed recordings show that Mr Antonini was pressured and even threatened to try to cover up an operation that had gone wrong, prosecutors say.

The four men with Mr Duran that day have admitted involvement in the cover-up and say the Venezuelan intelligence agency played a central role. Mr Duran faces 10 years in jail if found guilty.

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