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12 March 2012

- Jay Weaver

A Miami federal jury Monday convicted a former senior official in Haiti’s state-owned telecommunications company, who had left a long paper trail of bank deposits and other financial records in South Florida that sealed his fate on bribery-related charges.

Jurors deliberated for only two hours in the money laundering trial of Jean Rene Duperval, accused of pocketing about $500,000 in bribes from two Miami businesses that secured lower long-distance phone contracts with Haiti Teleco as a result of the payoffs.

Some of those kickbacks went to pay for Duperval’s Miramar home and his three children’s Florida Prepaid College Plans, prosecutors said.

During closing arguments Monday, Justice Department lawyer James Koukios mocked Duperval’s defense. Duperval testified last week that the payments were merely “tokens of appreciation” from the two companies, Terra Communications and Cinergy Communications.

But Koukios argued that the payments in fact were “gifts intended to buy his services” for more profitable terms on their phone-minute rates in 2003-04, when Duperval served as Haiti Teleco’s director of international relations.

“That’s a pretty expensive thank you note,” Koukios told the jury.

Duperval, who studied engineering in New York, was hired by former President Jean-Bertrand Aristide for the $25,000-a-year post at Haiti Teleco in 2003. He now faces up to 20 years in prison on two money-laundering conspiracy convictions and 19 money-laundering convictions at his sentencing on May 21 before U.S. District Judge Jose Martinez.

Duperval is the first Haitian official to face trial in a foreign corruption case brought by the Justice Department — the result of a criminal investigation into bribery allegations against him and other officials, including Aristide. The former president, who served from 2001 to 2004, has not been charged.

Justice Department lawyers alleged the two Miami telecom businesses funneled payments through two South Florida companies registered to Duperval’s brother and sister, who in turn issued checks in his name that were deposited in his local bank accounts.

Prosecutors further claimed that Duperval discounted the businesses’ long-distance phone contracts with Haiti Teleco so they could fatten their profits and kick back a chunk of the money to him.

“This case rises and falls on the documents,” Koukios told the 12-member jury. “Cinergy and Terra paid his family, and his family paid him.”

Duperval’s defense attorney, John Bergendahl, said prosecutors distorted his client’s history at Haiti Teleco. He said Duperval renegotiated phone-minute contracts with Terra and Cinergy at competitive rates that were favorable to Haiti Teleco, adding that the state-owned enterprise lost no money in the deals.

Bergendahl argued that the jury should find his client not guilty because Duperval did not consider his payments to be bribes, so he could not have participated in money laundering.

“The [federal] government is asking you to assume that because Jean Rene got the money, he did something wrong,” Bergendahl argued. “It was his belief that he got the money for administrative costs.

“There was nothing that Jean Rene did that was in violation of his lawful duty,” he said.

Bergendahl devoted a major part of his closing argument to discrediting the prosecution’s key witness, Robert Antoine, who had served as Haiti Teleco’s director of international relations before Duperval.

In 2010, Antoine pleaded guilty to conspiring to commit money laundering, admitting he took $1 million in bribes from Terra and Cinergy in exchange for lower phone rates, discounted costs and contract renewals.

At Duperval’s trial, Antoine testified after he left the government job, he worked as a consultant for Cinergy and facilitated payments from the business to the defendant.

“Robert Antoine was a thief and a cheat from the day he walked in the door” of Haiti Teleco, Bergendahl charged.

But prosecutors dished back, saying that Duperval had perfected “the art of the shakedown.’’

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