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A former Florida congressman is arrested on charges of lobbying for Venezuela

In this Nov. 2, 2010, file photo, then Florida Republican congressional candidate David Rivera speaks in Coral Gables, Fla. Federal authorities say Rivera broke the law in his dealings with Venezuela's state-run oil company.
Alan Diaz
In this Nov. 2, 2010, file photo, then Florida Republican congressional candidate David Rivera speaks in Coral Gables, Fla. Federal authorities say Rivera broke the law in his dealings with Venezuela's state-run oil company.

Former U.S. Rep. David Rivera, a well-connected Florida Republican, has been arrested on federal charges that include failing to register as a foreign agent. The case centers on Rivera's signing of a $50 million contract with Venezuela's government in early 2017, and his subsequent attempts to thaw Venezuela's icy relationship with the U.S.

"Law enforcement officers arrested David Rivera" in Atlanta on Monday, the U.S. Attorney's Office in the Southern District of Florida told NPR via email. Rivera appeared in court before a federal magistrate judge, the office said, adding that a federal grand jury had indicted him on Nov. 16.

The newly unsealed criminal indictment accuses Rivera of using his ties to members of Congress and former President Donald Trump's White House in attempts to broker U.S. deals with the regime of Nicolás Maduro. Accused along with Rivera is Esther Nuhfer of Miami-Dade County, a political consultant and lobbyist with longstanding ties to Rivera.

Rivera and his associates took in millions of dollars

In early 2017, Rivera signed a consultancy contract with PDV USA, the U.S. subsidiary of Venezuela's state-controlled oil company, according to court documents. On the Venezuela side, the deal took place on the order of Delcy Rodriguez, a high-ranking executive in the state oil firm who was also then the minister of foreign affairs (she later became Venezuela's vice president).

The contract called for Interamerican, a company Rivera operated out of his home, to receive five payments of $5 million followed by a final payout of $25 million — all over the course of just three months, according to the federal indictment. But the timeframe covered by the deal extended well into 2018.

Venezuela wanted Rivera to lobby politicians to build support for normalizing its relationship with the U.S., to help resolve a contentious trade issue with a U.S. oil company, and allow Maduro's regime and relatives to avoid a new round of sanctions, the indictment states.

Rather than registering as foreign agents, the court filing says, Rivera and Nuhfer sought to "unlawfully enrich themselves" while influencing U.S. policy toward Venezuela and presenting themselves as consultants for the Venezuelan oil company's U.S. affiliate rather than agents of the country's government.

Identities are obscured in court papers

The federal indictment doesn't divulge the names of several key U.S. officials who are said to have repeatedly met or communicated with Rivera about Venezuela's interests. Two lawmakers, for instance, are dubbed "U.S. Congressman 1," from Texas, and U.S. Senator 1," from Florida.

In emails and encrypted text messages, Rivera and his contacts used a range of pseudonyms and code words in an apparent attempt to obscure the details of their conversations, the federal indictment says.

For instance, they referred to Maduro as El Guaguero — a reference to his well-known rise to power from his days as a bus driver. U.S. Congressman 1 was dubbed "Sombrero," while money had at least two euphemisms: La Luz, or the light, meant money in general, while melones (melons) signaled millions of dollars, according to the document.

The indictment mentions Rivera's communication with "White House Advisor 1," who is described as a woman who was "a senior advisor to the President of the United States."

In a June 2017 message to a group chat, Rivera asked about the possibility of the White House official getting a ride on a private jet. Two days later, he urged people on the chat to prioritize meeting with Trump's "counselor" — a seeming reference to Kellyanne Conway, who held that title under Trump.

Rivera said the counselor was "more important" than then-Vice President Pence in the Trump White House, "because she made him president directing his campaign. And she works at his side every day."

In another message in September 2017, Rivera said, "I just spoke again with our friend in the White House. She tells me that she is willing to help any way she can. The faster The Light arrives, the faster the engines will start."

The civil case holds details and clues about identities

When the arrangement didn't produce the breakthroughs Rivera promised, PDV USA sued the former member of Congress in U.S. court for some $15 million and said it isn't obligated to pay the rest of his contract. Rivera counter-sued, saying he was still owed another $30 million.

Delcy Rodriguez, Venezuela's vice president, during a Bloomberg Television interview in Caracas, Venezuela, on June 11, 2021.
/ Gaby Oraa/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Gaby Oraa/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Delcy Rodriguez, Venezuela's vice president, during a Bloomberg Television interview in Caracas, Venezuela, on June 11, 2021.

PDV USA's lawsuit says those helping Rivera included Rep. Pete Sessions, a Republican from Texas. It was Sessions, the company's civil complaint states, who sought to help Rivera set up a meeting between Exxon, Rodriguez and other Venezuelan officials.

"In any event, the meeting with Exxon never occurred," the complaint states. But another high-profile meeting did take place: in April 2018, Sessions was reported to have traveled for a "secret peacemaking trip to Venezuela," where he met with Maduro.

The U.S. indictment alleges that the unnamed "U.S. Senator 1" took part in meetings at a private residence and a hotel in Washington, D.C., to discuss Venezuela — including at least one instance where the senator was poised to meet with Trump to discuss Venezuela the next morning.

That senator isn't identified in the indictment or the civil complaint. But several news outlets are noting that Rivera has long been a close friend of Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida.

Representatives for Rivera and Sessions did not immediately reply to requests for comment.

A spokesperson for Rubio said in a statement to NPR that during a July 2017 meeting, Rivera told Rubio that close Maduro associate Raul Gorrín wanted to personally deliver a letter from Maduro to Trump "outlining an agreement to hold free and fair elections and exit power." In a brief meeting in Washington, Gorrin "produced no such letter and failed to even mention the possibility of any such deal," the spokesperson said.

"As the indictment explicitly indicates, Mr. Rivera and his associates 'never disclosed to any of the United States officials who they met that they were lobbying on behalf of the Government of Venezuela,' " the spokesperson added. Rubio hasn't changed his stance that sanctions should only be lifted if free and fair elections are held in Venezuela, the spokesperson said.

Court papers allege a "sham"

Court records show that the U.S. officials had their own requirements for any potential deal, including seeking guarantees that Maduro would respect the outcome of free democratic elections. Maduro has refused to give such guarantees.

The PDV USA court filings give several insights into Rivera's activities, drawn from depositions and discovery of evidence in the case. For one thing, the company alleges that Rivera doled out millions of dollars to Nuhfer and other associates, in what were termed payments to subcontractors.

From the civil complaint:

"These associates and purported subcontractors include Raul Gorrín, a billionaire Maduro supporter who was indicted in the United States for his role in a massive money laundering and bribery operation, Hugo Perera, a convicted drug trafficker who is currently under criminal investigation [for the PDV contract] ... and Esther Nuhfer and her purported political consulting firm: Communication Solutions."

PDV USA says it "had no knowledge of Interamerican's illicit conduct," alleging that its contract isn't enforceable because it was based on a "sham."

Providing some insight into how the Justice Department might have developed part of its case against him, Rivera said during a deposition related to the civil case this past summer that the FBI had informed him that "Mr. Perera has been an FBI informant since December 2019."

In addition to his international troubles, Rivera also recently lost a long-running case against the Federal Election Commission, which accused him of making $75,927.31 in campaign contributions in the name of another person. He was ordered to pay a civil penalty of $456,000 in that case.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.
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