Venezuela hired a Democratic Party donor for $6 million


MIAMI (AP) — Newly filed lobbying records show that Venezuela’s socialist government previously hired a longtime Democratic Party donor for $6 million while lobbying to stop the U.S. imposing sanctions on the oil-rich nation.

The documents, released on Thursday, show that a US subsidiary of Venezuela’s state oil giant PDVSA agreed in March 2017 to hire Marcia Wiss’ Washington law firm. That same month, she signed a $50 million consulting deal with scandal-ridden former Congressman David Rivera.

Wiss, an international trade lawyer with a history of donations to the Democratic Party, including a $1,500 donation to Joe Biden last year, denies she has engaged in lobbying.

Her former client – now under new management – said he was unaware of the full scope of her work to determine whether it was political activity benefiting Nicolás Maduro’s government. The PDVSA affiliate also took the unusual step of retrospectively registering as a foreign agent and disclosing the contracts with Rivera, Wiss and a third party vendor.

The deals came to light as allies of opposition leader Juan Guaidó work with the Justice Department to uncover corrupt deals at another wholly-owned PDVSA subsidiary, Houston-based Citgo, which for years has acted as a cash cow for Venezuela’s ruling party. A board appointed by Guaidó took control of Citgo, the sixth largest independent US refiner, after the Trump administration recognized him as Venezuela’s rightful leader in 2019.

The same Guaidó-appointed officials who were behind the new foreign lobby filings last year sued Rivera for allegedly violating his consulting contract. The federal prosecutor’s office in Miami is also investigating whether the Republican violated foreign lobbying rules.

At the time both Wiss and Rivera were acquired, Maduro was attempting to ingratiate himself with the Trump administration by avoiding open criticism of the new US president while funneling $500,000 to his founding committee via Citgo.

The Rivera and Wiss deals were part of an effort to stop the then-new Trump administration and other governments from imposing sanctions on Venezuela, according to three people familiar with the deals, who spoke on condition of anonymity to avoid the politically sensitive matter to discuss. Payments came from a little-known Delaware-registered subsidiary, PDV USA, which provided shareholder services to PDVSA independent of Citgo’s oil operations.

The three people said the holding company was regularly used by Maduro’s government for political activities in the US

The charm offensive failed. Backed by exiles in Miami, Trump harbored the wife of a prominent jailed Venezuelan activist in the early days of his presidency and imposed the first of progressively tightening sanctions on PDVSA in August 2017. Democrats hailed the tough stance and the European Union began targeting Maduro allies with restrictions of its own.

But a similarly tactful approach is now being tried again with Biden Under the US administration, Maduro tried for a time to ease hostilities with the US, which had been Venezuela’s largest trading partner for decades before sanctions pushed him closer to US opponents like Russia, China and Iran. Also in the mix was US Representative Pete Sessions, whom the PDVSA was trying to recruit to organize a meeting the former CEO of the oil giant, Rex Tillerson, also served as Exxon boss as Trump’s secretary of state.

Wiss raised about half of the $6 million in monthly installments of $250,000 before, like Rivera, was ordered to bill PDVSA in Caracas in April 2018, the filings show. She once traveled to Caracas to meet with then-Secretary of State Delcy Rodríguez, who was PDVSA board member in charge of international relations, according to two of the three people familiar with the deal. Rodríguez is now Venezuela’s Vice President.

Wiss said her law firm does not and never has provided lobbying services. She added that the firm has never been billed by PDVSA or any related party outside the US, or ever received payment – suggesting half of the contract went unpaid.

“Wiss has been retained to provide legal services to PDV USA and its affiliates only,” she wrote in an email response to questions.

However, the PDV USA board appointed by Guaido felt that hiring Wiss, Rivera and a third company, Caribbean Style Inc., required registration under foreign lobbying rules. Texas-based Caribbean Style received $625,000 to run four full-page ads in the New York Times and Washington Post.

“The pro-Venezuelan and anti-US sanctions content of these ads indicates that they were intended to influence the US government or the US public’s perspective on the classification of the US sanctions regime on Venezuela,” PDV USA said in his file, which is dated. Dec 31

In all, between 2015 and March 2017, PDVSA sent PDV USA $89 million to pay US-based vendors, according to the filing, first published by Foreign Lobby Report, an online news outlet that tracks the influencer industry , has been reported.

PDV USA said Wiss provided updates on PDVSA-related disputes and advice on immigration, insurance and cryptocurrency.

However, it added that “PDV USA is unaware of the full scope of legal work Wiss may have performed under the advance,” suggesting what Guaidó-appointed officials consider a hefty fee may be additional Covered services for which there are no records. The AP could not find any record of Wiss appearing on behalf of PDV USA or PDVSA in federal court or in the large number of trade lawsuits against Venezuela in a World Bank arbitration panel.

Wiss would not say what legal services she provided or whether she had traveled to Caracas as part of her work, citing attorney-client privilege. “Your information is incorrect and you are being misled again,” she added.

Attorneys for Citgo’s new board last year sued one of Rivera’s consulting firms for alleged non-performance of its contractual obligations. According to the lawsuit, Rivera, Republican Senator Marco Rubio’s former roommate, failed to describe any work his firm Interamerican Consulting actually performed and produced only two of seven promised bi-weekly progress reports while raising the first $15 million the agreed $50 million.

The goal of the contract, according to a copy seen by AP, was to improve PDVSA’s “long-term reputation” and “prestige” with “targeted stakeholders” in the US.

Rivera’s political career unraveled amid several election-related controversies, including orchestrating the covert funding of an unknown Democratic candidate to take over his chief rival in a South Florida congressional race and a state investigation into whether he had a $1 million contract with a gambling company. He was never charged with a crime.

Rivera’s business is also under criminal investigation in Miami because Rivera never registered with the Justice Department, which would be required if US officials were to lobby on behalf of a foreign government.

Wiss has also never registered as a foreign agent and there is no indication that she herself is under investigation.

Wiss was a longtime attorney at Hogan Lovells, where PDVSA was a client, before founding her own boutique law firm, Wiss & Partners, in 2016.

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Investigative researcher Randy Herschaft of the Associated Press in New York contributed to this report.

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Joshua Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman

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