- Associated Press - Thursday, May 22, 2014

NEW YORK — Guatemala’s ex-president was sentenced Thursday to nearly six years in prison for accepting bribes, as a U.S. judge rejected leniency and said government corruption must be stamped out worldwide.

The $2.5 million in bribes Alfonso Portillo admitted accepting from the government of Taiwan to continue to recognize the Asian nation diplomatically should be “bothersome to the government of Guatemala and all the other countries in the United Nations convention against corruption,” U.S. District Judge Robert P. Patterson said.

Patterson sentenced Portillo, 62, to a term of five years, 10 months — a month short of the top of federal sentencing guidelines. He also ordered him to forfeit $2.5 million.

Rampant political corruption in some countries must be diminished “because it corrupts the political system of each of these countries,” Patterson said.

“There’s too much corruption,” Patterson said.

U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said, “(The) U.S. banking system is not open for business to those seeking to hide illegal funds.”

Portillo was Guatemala’s president from 2000 to 2004. He was extradited to the United States a year ago and remains in custody after pleading guilty to money laundering conspiracy in March.

Brian Su, deputy director general of Taipei’s economic and cultural office, has said that Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan’s president since 2008, “rejects checkbook diplomacy.”

Portillo’s attorney, David Rosenfield, had argued Portillo should be allowed to return to his family after more than four years in prison, most of it in Guatemala. The Federal Bureau of Prisons must decide how much of the time Portillo spent in Guatemala lockups can be credited toward his sentence.

Friends and family of Portillo who flew to the United States from Guatemala and Mexico attended the more than four-hour sentencing hearing.

“I feel profoundly remorseful and embarrassed not only because of the crimes I committed but because of the consequences borne by other people and institutions,” Portillo said, speaking through a Spanish interpreter.

Then he described what he believed were his achievements as Guatemala’s president, including cleaning up its financial system and improving education so more than 1 million people in a country of roughly 13 million could gain literacy.

“I’m not trying to justify my mistake or crime,” he said. “God and history will know whether I was a good or bad man during my time on this earth.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Adam Fee labeled his statement a “political speech.”

Earlier, Fee had called Portillo a “poor candidate for this court’s mercy,” saying it was difficult to overstate the seriousness of the crime because it was carried out while he was president.

The prosecutor said the bribes also threatened the integrity of U.S. banks because Portillo laundered the money through U.S. financial institutions, making them “a vehicle for moving bad money.”

“He did it for greed,” Fee said. He said he used the first half million dollars he received from Taiwan to build a larger home for meetings and entertaining.

Rosenfield said his client remained the most popular politician in Guatemala and had been punished enough.

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