Venezuelan lawyer gets 2 years in suitcase plea


Published: Monday, December 1, 2008 at 6:33 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, December 1, 2008 at 6:33 p.m.

MIAMI -- A Venezuelan lawyer dispatched by President Hugo Chavez's government to help cover up a cash suitcase scandal was handed a two-year prison sentence Monday by a judge who commended his prompt guilty plea and testimony against others.

U.S. District Judge Joan Lenard imposed the sentence on Moises Maionica after prosecutors recommended prison time even as they lauded his willingness to cooperate. The case involved the Miami coverup of a suitcase stuffed with nearly $800,000 in Venezuelan oil money intercepted at an Argentine airport in August 2007.

Lenard called Maionica's testimony "complete, reliable and very forthright" and noted he put family and associates at risk by aiding U.S. investigators. Yet she said the crimes of conspiracy and acting as an illegal foreign agent in the U.S. were too serious for Maionica to avoid prison.

Maionica, 37, has been jailed since his December 2007 arrest and will likely serve about another year. He pleaded guilty in January to conspiracy and acting as an illegal foreign agent in the U.S., which carry a combined maximum prison term of 15 years.

Maionica is the first to be sentenced in a case that caused political ripples across Latin America and exposed corruption in Venezuela.

He acknowledged he was contacted by the chief of Venezuela's intelligence service and asked "to take certain steps so that the Venezuelan and Argentinian governments could fix the case involving the currency seizure," according to court documents. In return, Maionica expected a legal fee of about $1.2 million.

Prosecutors said the South Americans charged sought to ensure the silence of dual U.S.-Venezuelan citizen Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson, a Key Biscayne resident who carried the cash-filled suitcase into a Buenos Aires airport. The U.S. said the money was a secret political donation to the campaign of Argentina's president, a charge denied by Argentina and Venezuela.

Antonini's wealthy friend and business associate, Franklin Duran, and Duran's partner Carlos Kauffmann, were also part of the plot. Kauffmann pleaded guilty and testified in a trial leading to Duran's conviction in November.

Kauffmann is to be sentenced next week and Duran in January. Antonini, who cooperated with the FBI, has not been charged.

In beige prison outfit and ankle chains, Maionica dabbed at his eyes with a tissue Monday and expressed regret.

"I am full of shame," Maionica said, according to a court Spanish translation. "I wish to apologize to everyone."

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