By Bernard Vaughan
NEW YORK (Reuters) - Former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo pleaded not guilty on Tuesday to U.S. federal charges he laundered millions of dollars of government money through U.S. and European bank accounts.
A grand jury in U.S. District Court in Manhattan indicted Portillo in 2009, accusing him of laundering tens of millions of dollars that it said he embezzled from the Guatemalan government.
Portillo, 61, who was president of Guatemala from 2000 to 2004, is charged with a single count of money laundering conspiracy. He faces a maximum prison term of 20 years.
He entered a not guilty plea in his first court appearance since his Central American homeland extradited him to the United States last week.
A Guatemalan court cleared Portillo of local embezzlement charges in May 2011, but the country's Supreme Court later endorsed an extradition request from the United States.
Sitting before U.S. District Judge Robert Patterson, Portillo, who wore a dark green suit, listened to a translator through earphones during the proceedings and spoke little beyond confirming his plea.
One of his lawyers, David Rosenfield, said bail was "absolutely appropriate" for Portillo and he will submit a bail request within the next two weeks.
"This is a case of clear over-reaching" by the U.S. government, Rosenfield said outside the courthouse after the hearing. He added that Portillo would "vigorously defend himself."
Portillo suffers from a heart ailment as well as a lung problem that is aggravated by the powerful air conditioning at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, where the former Guatemalan leader is being held, Rosenfield told the judge. He asked if the jail could perhaps cover the vent in Portillo's cell, or make some other accommodation.
The indictment accuses Portillo of diverting most of $1.5 million in donations from the Taiwanese government, which were meant to provide books to libraries, to Paris bank accounts in the name of his former wife and daughter. He also is accused of embezzling $3.9 million from the Guatemalan Ministry of Defense, in part to finance a private land deal.
"After three years of fighting his extradition, Alfonso Portillo has finally arrived in the United States to answer for his alleged misappropriation of millions of dollars intended for the benefit of the people of Guatemala" and laundered through U.S. banks, said Preet Bharara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, in a statement.
(Reporting by Bernard Vaughan; editing by Andrew Hay)