Venezuela Charges Opposition Leader With Misuse of Funds in 1998

Venezuelan opposition politician Leopoldo Lopez faces as much as four years in prison for alleged misuse of public funds more than a decade ago as President Hugo Chavez’s health prompts speculation about new elections.

Lopez, a former mayor of the Chacao district of Caracas, was charged with influence peddling related to donations from state oil company Petroleos de Venezuela SA in 1998, the country’s Public Prosecutor’s office said in an e-mailed statement today. Lopez was an external aide at PDVSA, where his mother, Antonietta Mendoza, worked at the time.

“I don’t believe in the justice system or in the prosecutors,” Lopez told reporters outside the prosecutors’ office today in Caracas. “But there’s nothing in my conscience to make me fear them.”

Mendoza used PDVSA funding programs to start the First Justice social foundation, which later became the political party of opposition candidate Henrique Capriles. Lopez, a 41-year-old Harvard University graduate, withdrew from opposition primaries last year to support Capriles, who was defeated by Chavez by more than 11 points in the October elections.

“This is political persecution rather than a serious criminal case,” Jose Carrasquero, public policy professor at Andres Bello Catholic University said by phone from Caracas today. “Chavez’s successors are trying to assert authority by pressuring opposing public figures.”

Vice President Nicolas Maduro accused Lopez of destabilizing the country after the opposition politician said the head of the National Assembly, rather than vice president, has to assume power in Chavez’ absence under the constitution.

Prosecutor’s office spokesman Alexander Duarte declined to comment when reached by Bloomberg News.

Lopez was completely absolved by the nation’s comptroller in 2004 of any wrongdoing related to the PDVSA donations, the politician’s lawyer Enrique Sanchez said by phone from Caracas today.

The charges against Lopez come as Chavez, who hasn’t been seen publicly since undergoing cancer surgery in Cuba in December, remains in a Caracas military hospital.

Maduro, who is Chavez’s chosen successor, is running affairs in his absence.

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