Florida Ex-Congressman Arrested For Secret Venezuela Contract

Federal authorities said a former Republican congressman who had been secretly paid $50 million by Venezuela’s state-run oil company to promote the idea of a warming of relations between the two countries was arrested on Monday and charged with conspiracy, failing to register as a foreign agent, and other crimes.

According to Marlene Rodriguez, a spokesman for the Southern District of Florida’s US Attorney’s Office, police detained former Florida Representative David Rivera at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. After a stint in the State Legislature, Mr. Rivera, a Cuban American, served in Congress from 2011 to 2013. He is well-known in Florida politics as an outspoken anti-communist.

But from 2017 to 2018, Mr. Rivera and a longtime associate, Esther Nuhfer, allegedly attempted to lobby members of Congress and the White House on behalf of Venezuela’s socialist president Nicolás Maduro, according to a federal indictment unsealed on Monday and signed by a South Florida grand jury last month.

According to the indictment, Mr. Rivera received at least $23.75 million from the $50 million contract his consulting firm, Interamerican Consulting, had signed with PDV USA, a U.S. division of the Venezuelan government-run oil company Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A., or PDVSA, for his lobbying efforts.

After that, Mr. Rivera divided the funds with Ms. Nuhfer and other people who aren’t mentioned in the indictment.

As required by the federal Foreign Agents Registration Act, Mr. Rivera, and Ms. Nuhfer failed to inform the Justice Department that they were working on behalf of the Venezuelan government, according to the indictment.

Instead, the indictment stated, “Rivera and Nuhfer disguised the existence of the consulting relationship with PDV USA, as well as the millions of dollars they received to lobby on behalf of the government of Venezuela from public scrutiny and United States officials.”

Mr. Rivera and Ms. Nuhfer were charged with five counts of dealing in criminally derived property, failure to register as foreign agents, conspiracy to commit money laundering, and conspiracy to commit an offense against the United States.

According to the indictment, Mr. Rivera and Ms. Nuhfer used the funds to pay for both personal and professional expenses, including “the purchase of the real estate, payment of expenses for luxury yachts, and, in Rivera’s case, payments to his campaign account for state office.”

In the 2018 election cycle, Mr. Rivera filed to run for the Florida House of Representatives, however, he was disqualified from the ballot.

Mr. Rivera’s attorney, Jeffrey D. Feldman, declined to comment on Monday, citing that it was “too soon” to do so. According to Ms. Rodriguez, Mr. Rivera appeared in court for the first time on Monday before a federal magistrate judge.

Mr. Rivera, 57, has been the focus of state and federal investigations into unlawful campaign activities for more than ten years. These activities include surreptitiously funding a Democratic candidate in order to undermine Mr. Rivera’s major opponent. In court last year, the Federal Election Commission won a $465,000 verdict against Mr. Rivera. But up until Monday, he had avoided being charged with a crime.

When PDV USA filed a lawsuit against Mr. Rivera for contract breach in U.S. District Court in Manhattan in 2020, his affiliation with a left-wing Venezuelan administration that was despised in South Florida became public knowledge. Then Mr. Rivera counterclaimed against PDV USA asserting that he was still owed $30 million from the deal. These cases are still open.

Mr. Rivera claimed that he had been working for the opposition rather than the Venezuelan government when PDV USA filed its lawsuit in 2020, which at least one opposition leader found to be “absurd.”

Delcy Rodrguez, a senior PDVSA official at the time and Venezuela’s secretary of international affairs, allegedly gave executives from Citgo, PDV USA’s American oil-refining unit, the order to sign the consulting agreement with Mr. Rivera’s company. The vice president of Venezuela is currently Ms. Rodriguez.

The indictment demonstrated how Mr. Rivera and Ms. Nuhfer attempted to arrange meetings in order to affect U.S. policy toward Venezuela through emails and encrypted text messages. One was an unnamed Texas representative who visited Venezuela in April 2018 to speak with Mr. Maduro. At the time, Republican Representative Pete Sessions was the congressman, according to the Associated Press.

In addition, the indictment claims that Mr. Rivera and Ms. Nuhfer set up two meetings at a private residence in Washington with an unidentified Florida senator to discuss the possibility of Mr. Maduro agreeing to hold “free and fair” elections in Venezuela in exchange for “reconciliation.”

Senator Marco Rubio, a Republican from Florida, spearheaded the effort to penalize the Maduro government under the Trump administration. Mr. Rivera is a close friend and a former roommate of Senator Rubio. Attempts to reach Mr. Rubio’s spokesperson for comment on Monday were unsuccessful.

According to the indictment, Mr. Rivera and Ms. Nuhfer were unsuccessful in arranging a meeting on the same subject with an unnamed White House aide.

If Mr. Rivera and Ms. Nuhfer were found guilty, the $23.75 million involved in the alleged crimes, a bank account belonging to Ms. Nuhfer, and four Florida properties, including a townhouse in a gated community that, at least once, served as Mr. Rivera’s primary residence, would all be subject to forfeiture by the federal government.

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