Venezuelan Foreign Minister Calls Suitcase Scandal "Absolutely Rigged"

Venezuela's Foreign Minister, Nicolas Maduro denied on Saturday that a Venezuelan lawyer, Moisés Maionica, who pleaded guilty to being an "unregistered foreign agent" in a Miami federal court, was acting on behalf of the Venezuelan government in the so-called "suitcase scandal."

By Kiraz Janicke - Venezuelanalysis.com

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Antonini Wilson, who is accused of illegally bringing $800,000 cash into Argentina.
Antonini Wilson, who is accused of illegally bringing $800,000 cash into Argentina.
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Caracas, January 29, 2008 (venezuelanalysis.com) - Venezuela's Foreign Minister, Nicolas Maduro denied on Saturday that a Venezuelan lawyer, Moisés Maionica, who pleaded guilty to being an "unregistered foreign agent" in a Miami federal court, was acting on behalf of the Venezuelan government in the so-called "suitcase scandal." "The person who said he is an agent of our government lied," Maduro said and added that the case was "absolutely rigged."

Maionica, 36, is one of four Venezuelans and a Uruguayan charged in December with acting as "unregistered foreign agents" on behalf of the Venezuelan government, and conspiring to cover up the source of US$800,000 discovered in a suitcase in the possession of Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson - a Venezuelan-American businessman, by customs officials in Buenos Aires in August last year.

Argentine judge Marta Novatti ordered the arrest of Antonini, however he evaded authorities and returned to the U.S, where he lives in Key Biscayne, a wealthy island suburb of Miami. The Argentine government has twice requested the extradition of Antonini to face charges of money laundering. However, instead of sending him back to Argentina, U.S. investigators wired him with a recording device to gather evidence against the other suspects.

U.S. prosecutors allege that the accused men have connections to high officials in the Venezuelan government, and that the money was destined to finance the presidential campaign of Cristina Fernandez, current President of Argentina.

Maionica admitted to acting as an agent of the Venezuelan government and acknowledged that he met with Antonini and three other suspects: Venezuelans Carlos Kauffmann, 35, Franklin Duran, 40, and Uruguayan Rodolfo Wanseele, 40. A fourth man charged in the case, Antonio José Canchica Gómez, remains at large.

However, in an earlier hearing on January 7, Maionica along with Kauffman pleaded "not guilty." Maionica's father, Moisés Maionica Snr, also a lawyer, told AFP at the time that Antonini, "framed them and betrayed them all to save his neck."

Maionica Sr assured that it was Antonini himself who had called his son and requested his legal services in Miami. Maionica was only acting to provide his professional services, "The intention was to defend Antonini, particularly in connection to Argentina, where some contacts were made," he said.

Former Argentinean judge Guillermo Ledesma confirmed he had attended a meeting in Miami to assess the legal status of Antonini in Argentina, at the request of Maionica's legal firm.

Both Argentina and Venezuela have repeatedly rejected the claims and say the trial is politically motivated. Argentina has accused Antonini of working for the CIA.

Maduro also questioned the impartiality of the Miami court, saying, "Those who appoint the public prosecutors and judges in Florida, are those who run the mafia, linked to people of Cuban origin who are totally opposed to the sovereign process in our country."

"You know that this man said the exact opposite 15 days ago." "Who knows what thing, what blackmail would make him declare this?"

Venezuela's opposition claims that those accused are part of the "Bolivarian bourgeoisie" and that the "suitcase scandal" is proof of corruption within the Chavez government. Duran and Kauffmann, both business and social acquaintances of Antonini Wilson, are shareholders in the petrochemical company Venoco and have business dealings with Venezuelan state oil company, PDVSA. Duran is also a business partner of Antonini in the company Foxdelta Investments and principal owner of Venezuelan arms importing company Ruibal and Duran. He also owns a beachfront mansion in Key Biscayne.

However, Antonini is also linked to radical sectors of the Venezuelan opposition. From 2000- 2002 Antonini worked for Venoco, whose then owner was Isaac Perez Recao, an arms dealer and owner of security firm Wackenhut in Venezuela, who together with a group of heavily armed bodyguards, played a highly visible role during the April 2002 coup attempt against the Chavez government. Interem coup "president" Pedro Carmona was also president of Venoco during this time.

In the January 28 edition of the newspaper Correo del Peru, Jaime Bayly, a Peruvian journalist who has never hidden his aversion to the Chavez government, said he visited Antonini in his luxury Key Biscayne home in early 2002 and that he was a vehement opponent of the Chavez government.

According to Bayly, Antonini said at the time, "Chavez is not going to last. He is going to fall soon. We are going to knock him out...Pay attention. We are going to knock out Chavez. He's going to end up in jail."

"A few months later, in April, I read that there had been a coup against Chavez. I remembered the words of my friend Guido; ‘Chavez is not going to last. We're going to knock him out.' I called him to ask him what was happening in Caracas. But he didn't answer the phone."

Bayly said he found it hard to believe that Antonini was working for the Venezuelan government.

Maionica will face sentencing on April 4 and could face up to 15 years imprisonment and a $250,000 fine. However, due to his cooperation with the FBI, he is likely to recieve a reduced sentence. The case against his co-defendants is still pending. The trial is scheduled for March 17, 2008.

Antonini is not facing charges in the U.S. However, he is under investigation by both the Argentine and Venezuelan governments.