WASHINGTON (AP) -- A former Miami congressman who signed a $50 million consulting contract with Venezuela's socialist government was arrested Monday on charges of money laundering and representing a foreign government without registering.
David Rivera, a Republican who has been marred by scandals stretching back to his days in Congress from 2011 to 2013, was arrested at Atlanta's airport, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office in Miami.
The eight-count indictment alleges Rivera at the start of the Trump administration was part of a conspiracy to lobby on behalf of Venezuela to lower tensions with the U.S., resolve a legal dispute with a U.S. oil company and end U.S. sanctions against the South American nation -- all without registering as a foreign agent.
The indictment cites meetings in Washington, New York and Dallas that Rivera either attended or tried to set up for allies of President Nicolas Maduro with U.S. lawmakers and a top aide to former President Donald Trump. To hide the sensitive nature of his work, prosecutors allege Rivera referred to Maduro in chat messages as the "bus driver," a congressman as "Sombrero" and millions of dollars as "melons."
While none of the U.S. officials are named, evidence in a parallel lawsuit brought against Rivera show that while working for Venezuela the former congressman was in contact with Sen. Marco Rubio, a longtime friend who helped drive the Trump administration's hardline policy against Maduro.
As part of the charm offensive, he also looked to set up a possible flight and meeting on a the jet of a pro-Maduro businessman for a female campaign adviser turned White House "counselor" on June 27, 2017 -- the same day Trump aide Kellyanne Conway was in Miami for a fundraising dinner with Miami Republicans.
He also roped in Rep. Pete Sessions of Texas to try and set up a meeting for Venezuela's foreign minister with executives from Exxon, which was headquartered in Sessions' district at the time.
In July 2017, for example, the indictment alleges Rivera wrote in text messages to the unnamed U.S. senator ahead of a key meeting at the White House where he hoped the lawmaker would discuss with Trump a possible deal to end Venezuela's never-ending political conflict.
"Remember, US should facilitate, not just support, a negotiated solution," he wrote. "No vengeance, reconciliation."
Rubio and Sessions' offices didn't immediately respond to email and phone requests for comment.
Pressure has been building on Rivera for more than two years after it emerged that he received the massive contract from a U.S. affiliate of Venezuela's state-owned oil company as Maduro was trying to curry favor with the Trump White House.
Rivera's Interamerican Consulting was sued in 2020 by PDV USA -- a Delaware-based affiliate of Venezuelan-owned Citgo -- for not living up to the contract he signed in 2017 for three months of "strategic consulting."
Although Rivera's contract was originally signed with a U.S. entity, any work he performed on behalf of Maduro's government or Venezuelan business interests required him to register as a foreign lobbyist.
It was something prosecutors allege Rivera acknowledged himself in October 2017 when he sent a text message relaying a lawyer's advice not to get anywhere near parent company PDVSA in Caracas and that failure to stay away "would be a scandal of monumental proportions." Three weeks later, prosecutors say he received a $5 million payment from PDVSA's account at Gazprom Bank in Russia.
Rivera, 57, has maintained his innocence and has countersued PDV USA, alleging breach of contract and unjust enrichment for its failure to pay $30 million he says he is still owed. A lawyer for Rivera said he had not seen the indictment and Rivera did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment.
The U.S. Marshals Service said Rivera bailed out of jail Monday afternoon after making an initial appearance in Atlanta federal court.
Around the time Rivera was hired, Maduro's government was seeking to court the Trump's administration, donating $500,000 to his inaugural committee through Citgo and initially avoiding outright criticism of the new U.S. president, who had a penchant for praising strongmen including Russia's Vladimir Putin and North Korea's Kim Jong-un.
The outreach effort ultimately failed, as Trump in 2019 recognized opposition lawmaker Juan Guaido as Venezuela's legitimate leader and imposed stiff oil sanctions on the OPEC nation in a bid to unseat Maduro.
Records that emerged as part of the ongoing lawsuit show Rivera's consulting work was closely coordinated with Raul Gorrin -- a Venezuelan insider and media tycoon who has been sanctioned and indicted in the U.S. on money laundering charges.
Prior to being charged in late 2018, Gorrin had enmeshed himself in south Florida, where he owned a luxurious home, and fashioned himself a peacemaker who could build bridges across Venezuela's deep political divide as well as between Maduro's government and the U.S.
While Rivera was working with Venezuela, Gorrin's TV network hired Trump-connected lobbyist Brian Ballard to purportedly explore opportunities for a U.S. expansion. During that time Gorrin took a photo with Vice President Mike Pence at an event in Miami. It was also during this time that prosecutors allege Rivera tried to arrange a meeting aboard the private jet for the visiting White House adviser.
"The six-hour meeting with (the President of the United States)'s counselor . . . is more important than the meeting with (the Vice-President of the United States), because she made him president directing his campaign. And she works at his side every day," Rivera texted the businessman, who is identified only as "Foreign Individual 1" in the indictment.
Correspondence introduced as part of the lawsuit shows Rivera and the businessman also discussing buying "concert tickets" -- a possible code word for bribes -- to unnamed officials and attempting to coordinate a meeting between Venezuela's foreign minister and executives from Exxon.
As part of that effort, they also roped in Sessions, who secretly traveled to Venezuela in 2018 to meet with Maduro.
Prosecutors allege some of the $15 million that Rivera received as part of the contract was funneled to pay for maintenance on one of the businessman's superyachts. Other funds were transferred to Miami-based political consultant Esther Nuhfer, who was also charged. A smaller amount was paid to another woman, an unnamed Orlando-based political consultant, who acted as a liaison to the U.S. congressman.
Rivera's contract had all the hallmarks of a sham, according to PDV USA, which since 2019 has been run by directors appointed by the U.S.-backed opposition.
According to the lawsuit, Rivera's Interamerican made just $9,500 in the year before being picked, out of the blue, by Venezuela's then Foreign Minister Delcy Rodriguez without any due diligence. Rivera never met in person with anyone from Citgo or PDV USA while supposedly working on its behalf. Instead, he filed two "deficient and incoherent" progress reports of the seven he was required to submit.
"The written record is bereft of any evidence that Interamerican performed any of the contracted services," PDV USA argues in court filings. "There is not a single email, a single PowerPoint presentation, a single outline, a single memorandum, a single calendar entry, or anything else suggesting that Interamerican ever performed any of the services."
Before being elected to Congress, Rivera was a high-ranking Florida legislator, serving from 2003 to 2010 in the House. During that time he shared a Tallahassee home with Rubio, who eventually became Florida House speaker.
Rivera has been embroiled in 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. That probe also involved possible misuse of campaign funds to pay for state House activities already reimbursed by the state.