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US Court Finds Venezuelan Guilty in Suitcase Scandal

A U.S. court has found a Venezuelan businessman guilty of acting as an illegal foreign agent to cover up a political scandal involving Argentina. VOA's Brian Wagner reports, the trial has sparked criticism from the governments of Venezuela and Argentina.

The guilty verdict ended the two-month trial against Franklin Duran, a 41-year-old businessman who was accused of acting on behalf of the government of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez.

Prosecutors said Venezuelan officials asked Duran to come to the United States to pressure a friend who had been caught entering Argentina last year with a suitcase filled with $800,000. U.S. officials say the money was a campaign contribution from Venezuela to Argentina's president, and that Caracas wanted to conceal the source of the money.

Argentina's President, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, has accused the United States of a smear campaign. President Chavez says the U.S. is trying to discredit his socialist government.

The lead prosecutor, Assistant U.S. Attorney Thomas Mulvihill, told reporters the trial was not about politics.

"Obviously, the United States takes very seriously the actions of any agents on its soil," said Thomas Mulvihill. "And that is what the case was about."

Three other men, including Duran's former business partner, have pleaded guilty in the case. Another suspect remains at large.

Duran's former partner told the court about a series of kickbacks and bribes involving Venezuelan federal and state officials. Prosecutors said the testimony showed that Duran was closely tied to officials and was eager to maintain those lucrative relationships.

Defense lawyers argued that the testimony about alleged corruption would likely trigger a new scandal in Venezuela.

Attorney Ed Shohat said the trial was motivated by politics.

"I am not going to elaborate on that any further," said Ed Shohat. "I believe it is a political circus and I believe Franklin Duran is a pawn in that circus."

Shohat said he plans to appeal the conviction.

The corruption allegations heard at the trial have generated widespread attention, especially in Venezuela.

Television reporter Verioska Velasco is one of several Venezuelan journalists who have been covering the trial in Miami. She says there is new pressure on Venezuela's government and civil society to take a fresh look at possible corruption.

She says there should be an investigation into the allegations to see whether they are politically motivated or if there is corruption at high levels in the government.

On Saturday, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez warned that he might nationalize the petrochemical firm owned by Duran because of his alleged role in the scandal.

Duran is scheduled to be sentenced in January and could receive the maximum term of 15 years in prison.