By Carlos Suarez, Devon M. Sayers and Florencia Trucco, CNN
Former Republican Rep. David Rivera of Florida was arrested in Atlanta on Monday on federal charges that include failing to register as a foreign agent and conspiracy to commit money laundering, according to the Department of Justice.
The eight-count indictment alleges that Rivera and a co-defendant, Esther Nuhfer, met with several US officials about normalizing US relations with the Venezuelan government without registering with the DOJ, as required by law.
Rivera, who is Cuban American, was paid millions of dollars for his work by PDV USA, a US subsidiary of Venezuela’s state-run oil company, to lobby American politicians for improved relations between the two nations, according to the indictment, and prevent “the United States from imposing additional economic sanctions” against Venezuela’s president and “other members of his regime.”
US officials said Rivera signed a $50 million contract with PDV USA in 2017.
Rivera served in Congress from 2011 to 2013.
Rivera’s attorney and the government of Venezuela declined CNN’s request for comment on the charges. An attorney for Nuhfer also declined to comment on the charges.
The indictment details several meetings between Rivera and US officials, including an unnamed US senator representing Florida and a congressman from Texas. Prosecutors said Rivera also tried to meet with a White House adviser to then-President Donald Trump.
In 2017, according to the indictment, Rivera met with the senator at a private residence in Washington, DC, “during which Rivera told (the senator) that Foreign Individual 1 had persuaded President (Nicolas) Maduro to accept a deal whereby he would hold free and fair elections in Venezuela,” in exchange for “reconciliation with the United States.”
A second meeting was held at a hotel in Washington, DC, with an unidentified Venezuelan politician joining by telephone.
“The ultimate goal of these efforts was to garner political support in the United States for normalization of relations between the Unites States and Venezuela, to include resolving a legal dispute between US Oil company 1 and Venezuela and preventing the United States from imposing additional economic sanctions against President Maduro and other members of his regime,” according to the government.
In 2018, the group helped arrange for a member of Congress to meet with Maduro. The group met with the Venezuelan leader on April 2, 2018. During the meeting, the unnamed congressman agreed to deliver a letter to Trump from Maduro requesting the “United States’ support for President Maduro’s plan to normalize relations in exchange for a promise to hold free and fair elections in the future.”
Sen. Marco Rubio’s office confirmed to CNN on Wednesday that the Florida Republican met with Rivera in 2017, and then subsequently met with a close associate of Maduro.
During the meeting, “Senator Rubio communicated directly what he has said publicly for over five years, that the only way sanctions should be lifted is if the regime agrees to free and fair elections. If, as is alleged, this was an effort to soften his stance on sanctions, it failed miserably,” a spokesperson for Rubio told CNN. The spokesperson also pointed to the fact that the indictment noted that the group never said to Rubio that they were lobbying on behalf of Venezuela.
Rubio is not named in the indictment and has not been accused of wrongdoing.
The maximum sentence for the conspiracy charge is five years, while the maximum sentence for failure to register as a foreign agent is five years and the maximum sentence for the money laundering count is 20 years. The maximum sentence for the five charges of engaging in transactions using the proceeds of criminal activity is 10 years each.
The government is seeking the forfeiture of $23.7 million, plus several pieces of real estate, according to the indictment.
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