Ex-Guatemala President Portillo Enters Not Guilty Plea

Former Guatemalan president Alfonso Portillo pleaded not guilty in a U.S. court to charges he embezzled and laundered tens of millions of dollars through U.S. banks while in office.

Portillo entered the plea today in a hearing before U.S. District Judge Robert Patterson in federal court in Manhattan after being extradited to New York on May 24.

Portillo, 61, was president of the Central American nation from January 2000 to January 2004. He was arrested in 2010 in Guatemala on an indictment filed by federal prosecutors in New York in 2009. If convicted, Portillo faces as much as 20 years in prison, according to a statement from the office of U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in Manhattan.

In May 2011, a three-judge panel in Guatemala acquitted Portillo in an embezzlement trial in that country. An appeals court in Guatemala upheld the court’s judgment of not guilty, a lawyer for Portillo said today.

Glenn MacTaggart, a lawyer for Portillo, said outside court that Portillo’s team is working to present a bail proposal. They asked Patterson for a hearing on bail in 10 to 14 days.

‘Clear Overreaching’

MacTaggart, reading from a prepared statement, said the prosecution is “a case of clear overreaching” by the government and that the allegations have little connection to the U.S. MacTaggart said Portillo is fighting his extradition before a federal appeals court in New York and expects to be found not guilty if forced to face the charges.

Portillo, who is in federal custody, appeared in court today wearing a dark suit and tie. He was aided by a Spanish-language translator.

Prosecutors claim that in 2000 and 2002 Portillo stole $2.5 million provided by Taiwan’s government to buy books for school libraries. He stole $3.9 million from Guatemala’s Ministry of Defense, prosecutors claim. And from 2000 through 2003 he misappropriated money from the publicly financed reserves of Credito Hipocaterio Nacional, a Guatemalan national bank, the U.S. said.

Portillo diverted the money through banks in Miami to European banks and to an investment account to Luxembourg, prosecutors said.

David Rosenfield, one of Portillo’s lawyers, told Patterson that his client has “heart issues.” He asked that a vent in Portillo’s cell be covered to block the excessive air conditioning he said is making his client sick.

The case is U.S. v. Portillo, 09-cr-1142, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York (Manhattan).

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