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U.S. seeks prison time for ex-Guatemalan leader after bribe plea

By Nate Raymond

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. prosecutors are pushing for a prison sentence for former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo that ensures he remains behind bars after admitting to taking $2.5 million in bribes from Taiwan and laundering funds through U.S. banks.

Lawyers for Portillo have asked a federal judge in New York to sentence the fallen leader to time served, citing the years he has spent detained in prisons in Guatemala and the United States since his arrest in January 2010.

In a court filing late Monday in New York federal court, prosecutors acknowledged Portillo, 62, may be entitled to credit for at least some prison time, but sought a term of up to five years, 11 months.

Such a sentence would mean the fallen Guatemalan leader could remain incarcerated for up to 1-1/2 years more.

"The defendant should receive a substantial punishment for using the United States' banking system as a means of transferring millions of dollars of his corruptly obtained funds," prosecutors wrote.

The U.S. government is formally asking for the "top end" of what it said would be a range of 57 to 71 months under federal sentencing guidelines. Sentencing before U.S. District Judge Robert Patterson is scheduled for May 22.

David Rosenfield, a lawyer for Portillo, did not respond to a request for comment Tuesday.

Portillo, who served as president of Guatemala from 2000 to 2004, was extradited to the United States in May 2013 after a years-long fight and after Guatemalan courts had cleared him on local embezzlement charges.

The U.S. government initially accused Portillo of laundering tens of millions of dollars they said he embezzled from the Guatemalan government, including $2.5 million provided by Taiwan's embassy in Guatemala.

Portillo pleaded guilty to a charge of money laundering conspiracy in March. He said, however, the $2.5 million was actually a bribe from Taiwan in exchange for Guatemala's continued diplomatic recognition.

China says Taiwan has no right to recognition as it is part of China. The two have been governed separately since the Communists won China's civil war in 1949.

Only 22 countries maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan, including the tiny Pacific island states of Nauru and Palau, as well as Vatican City, Paraguay, Panama, Haiti, Nicaragua and Belize.

In Monday's filing, U.S. prosecutors said Portillo accepted the first of the bribe payments four days before he officially assumed office in Guatemala. The money was subsequently laundered through U.S. bank accounts, prosecutors said.

In an April 30 defense filing, Portillo's lawyers asked Patterson to consider his "many positive contributions to Guatemala."

Several Guatemalan politicians, along with members of Portillo's family, have written to Patterson in support of the former president's bid for leniency.

"His policies favored the poorest and most vulnerable citizens of Guatemala, a country with a very high poverty rate and significant socioeconomic problems," Portillo's lawyers wrote.

(Reporting by Nate Raymond in New York; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Andrew Hay)

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