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Suspected illegal Venezuelan agents cover up South American political scandal with lawsuit against Miami bank

Alleged illegal Venezuelan agents trying to cover up a South American political scandal have filed a lawsuit against a Miami bank, claiming that their accounts totaling $25 million (17.23 million EUR) were summarily closed without permission.

The lawsuit was filed Dec. 7 by Franklin Duran and Carlos Kauffmann, two of the four men jailed on federal charges of failing to register with the U.S. as foreign agents, against Miami-based American Express Bank International.

Prosecutors say Duran and Kauffmann were key players in an attempt by Venezuela to cover up an attempt to contribute $800,000 (551,382 EUR) in cash to the campaign of Argentina's new president, Cristina Fernandez. All four men are in U.S. custody, with a bail hearing set Monday. The lawyer for Duran and Kauffmann says they are innocent.

The lawsuit filed in Miami-Dade County state court by Duran and Kauffmann contends that the bank notified them Sept. 21 that their accounts were being summarily closed and $25 million (17.23 million EUR) of their money would be transferred elsewhere. Attorney Michael Hacker said neither Duran nor Kauffmann gave consent for the move, which caused them "shock and amazement," the lawsuit said.

Hacker said this week that the timing was suspicious, suggesting that the federal investigation into the alleged South American cover-up may have played a role in the bank's decisions. American Express Bank International officials and the Miami U.S. attorney's office declined comment.

The lawsuit seeks damages of $25 million (17.23 million EUR), which could be tripled under state law to $75 million (51.69 million EUR) plus interest. The two men are partners in various oil and petroleum business ventures, their lawsuit says.

The bank dispute is yet another wrinkle in an international political scandal involving Fernandez, Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and U.S. prosecutors. Fernandez this week angrily denounced allegations about campaign chicanery made in a U.S. court, with Chavez's government calling the prosecution "U.S. propagandistic trash."

Duran, Kauffmann and fellow Venezuelan Moises Maionica are charged with being illegal foreign agents in the U.S. along with Uruguayan citizen Rodolfo Wanseele. Duran and Kauffmann both have homes in the Miami area, Hacker said, but were not Venezuelan agents and had no connection to the $800,000 (551,382 EUR) prosecutors say was brought in a suitcase to Argentina for the Fernandez presidential campaign.

"It wasn't our money. We weren't there," Hacker said. "We had nothing to do with it."

Maionica and Wanseele have asked for court-appointed attorneys but did not have them as of Friday, according to court records. A fifth man charged in the case remains at large.

An FBI affidavit contends that the four men began working in August in the Miami area to create a fake paper trail that would hide the true source of the $800,000 (551,382 EUR), which had been carried into Argentina earlier in the month by Guido Alejandro Antonini Wilson - a dual U.S. and Venezuelan citizen who is apparently cooperating in the case.

At one meeting monitored by the FBI, Duran was allegedly overheard telling Antonini that "the people in Venezuela and Argentina wanted Antonini's mess to be solved so that the truth didn't come out." Duran also purportedly said the situation was behind handled at the highest levels of the Venezuelan government.

The men allegedly used code names and took unspecified measures to thwart U.S. surveillance at some of their meetings, the FBI document says. Their final meeting took place in Fort Lauderdale on Tuesday, just before they were arrested.

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