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Venezuela hired US Democratic Party donor for $6 million

Published: Updated:

Newly filed lobbying records show Venezuela’s socialist government previously hired a longtime Democratic Party donor for $6 million at the same time it was lobbying to discourage the US from imposing sanctions on the oil-rich nation.

The documents, which were disclosed Thursday, show a US subsidiary of Venezuela’s state oil giant PDVSA agreed to hire Marcia Wiss’ Washington law firm in March 2017. That’s the same month it signed a consulting deal for $50 million with scandal-tainted former Congressman David Rivera.

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Wiss, an international trade lawyer with a history of donations to the Democratic Party, including a $1,500 contribution to Joe Biden last year, denies she did any lobbying work.

Her former client — now under new management — said it was unaware of the full extent of her work to determine if it constituted political activities benefitting Nicolás Maduro’s government. The PDVSA subsidiary also took the unusual step of registering retroactively as a foreign agent, disclosing the contracts with Rivera, Wiss and a third vendor.

The contracts have come to light as allies of opposition leader Juan Guaidó work with the Justice Department to uncover any corrupt dealings at another wholly owned PDVSA subsidiary, Houston-based Citgo, which for years operated as a cash cow for Venezuela’s ruling party. A Guaidó-appointed board wrested 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 behind the new foreign lobby filings last year sued Rivera for allegedly breaking his consulting contract. Federal prosecutors in Miami are also investigating whether the Republican broke foreign lobbying rules.

At the time both Wiss and Rivera were retained, Maduro was trying to curry favor with the Trump administration, avoiding outright criticism of the new US president while funneling $500,000 to his inaugural committee through Citgo.

The contracts with Rivera and Wiss were part of an effort to discourage 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 discuss the politically sensitive matter. 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 in the early days of his presidency hosted the wife of a prominent jailed Venezuelan activist and in August 2017 imposed the first of gradually more restrictive sanctions on PDVSA. Democrats cheered the hardline stance and the European Union began targeting Maduro allies with restrictions of its own.

But in a similarly tactful approach now being tried again with the Biden administration, Maduro for a while sought to ease hostilities with the US, which had been Venezuela’s biggest trading partner for decades before sanctions drove him closer to US adversaries like Russia, China and Iran. Also in the mix was US Rep. Pete Sessions, who PDVSA tried to recruit to set up a meeting with the head of Exxon at the same time the oil giant’s former CEO, Rex Tillerson, was serving as Trump’s secretary of state.

Wiss collected around half of the $6 million in monthly installments of $250,000 before being instructed, like Rivera, to bill PDVSA back in Caracas in April 2018, according to the filings. On one occasion, she traveled to Caracas to meet with then Foreign Minister Delcy Rodríguez, who was a 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 never invoiced or ever received payment from PDVSA or any non-US related party — suggesting that half of the contract went unpaid.

“Wiss was engaged to provide PDV USA and its affiliates with legal services only,” she wrote in an e-mailed response to questions.

But the Guaido-appointed board of PDV USA deemed that the hiring of Wiss, Rivera and a third company, Caribbean Style Inc., required it to register under foreign lobbying rules. The Texas-based Caribbean Style was paid $625,000 to place four full-page advertisements in the New York Times and Washington Post.

“The pro-Venezuelan and anti-US sanctions content of these advertisements suggests they were intended to influence the US government or the US public’s perspective of the US sanctions regime rating to Venezuela,” PDV USA said in its filing, which is dated December 31.

In total, PDVSA sent $89 million to PDV USA between 2015 and March 2017 to pay US-based vendors, according to the filing, which was first reported by Foreign Lobby Report, an online news service that tracks the influence industry.

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

But it added that “PDV USA is unaware of the full extent of the legal work that Wiss may have been performing under the retainer,” suggesting that what Guaidó-appointed officials consider a high fee may have covered additional services for which it has no record. The AP could find no record of Wiss appearing on behalf of PDV USA or PDVSA in federal court or in the large number of commercial claims against Venezuela before a World Bank arbitration panel.

Wiss wouldn’t say what legal services she performed, or whether she had traveled to Caracas as part of her work, citing lawyer-client privilege. “Your information is false and you are being again misled,” she added.

Lawyers for Citgo’s new board sued a consulting firm owned by Rivera last year for allegedly not fulfilling its obligations under the contract. According to the lawsuit, Rivera, the former roommate of fellow Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, failed to describe any work that his firm, Interamerican Consulting, had actually performed, preparing just two of seven promised bi-weekly progress reports while collecting the first $15 million of the agreed-to $50 million.

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

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

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

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

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

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