MIAMI (AP) – Venezuela’s socialist government hired a Democratic Party donor for $ 6 million as it lobbied to dissuade the United States from imposing sanctions on the oil nation, according to new lobbying records recently released.
The documents, released Thursday, show that a US subsidiary of Venezuelan state oil giant PDVSA agreed to hire Marcia Wiss’ law firm in Washington in March 2017. That same month, it signed a consulting agreement for 50 million dollars with the controversial ex-congressman David Rivera.
Wiss, an international trade attorney with a history of giving to the Democratic Party, including a $ 1,500 contribution to President Joe Biden’s campaign last year, denies doing any lobbying.
His former client – now under new management – said he was unaware of the full scope of his work to determine whether it constituted a beneficial political activity for the government of Nicolás Maduro. The PDVSA subsidiary also took the unusual step of retroactively registering as a foreign agent, revealing contracts with Rivera, Wiss and a third contractor.
The deals came to light as allies of Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó work with the US Department of Justice to uncover any allegedly corrupt pacts in another PDVSA subsidiary, Houston-based Citgo, which for years operated as a source of income for the ruling party in Caracas. The Guaidó-appointed board of directors took control of Citgo, the sixth-largest independent refinery in the United States, after the government of Donald Trump recognized him as the legitimate leader of Venezuela in 2019.
The same officials named by Guaidó responsible for filing as a foreign agent sued Rivera last year for allegedly breaking his consulting contract. The federal prosecutor’s office in Miami is also investigating whether the Republican violated international lobbying laws.
At the time Wiss and Rivera were hired, Maduro was trying to win the favor of the Trump administration, avoiding criticizing the then-new US president directly while diverting $ 500,000 to his inaugural committee through Citgo.
The contracts with Rivera and Wiss were part of an effort to dissuade the White House and other governments from imposing sanctions on Venezuela, according to three people familiar with the agreements who spoke on condition of anonymity to address the politically sensitive issue. The payments came from a little-known Delaware registered subsidiary, PDV USA, which provided shareholder services to PDVSA independently of Citgo’s oil operations.
The three sources pointed out that the Maduro government regularly used the holding company for political activities in the United States.
The offensive failed. Backed by exiles in Miami, in the early days of his administration, Trump received the wife of a prominent Venezuelan activist in prison and, in August 2017, imposed the first of increasingly restrictive sanctions on PDVSA. Democrats celebrated Washington’s stance and the European Union began targeting Maduro’s allies with its own restrictions.
With an equally low-key approach to the Biden government, Maduro seeks to soften hostilities with a country that for decades was Venezuela’s biggest trading partner, before sanctions brought Caracas closer to American rivals like Russia, China and Iran. Also in the equation was Representative Pete Sessions, whom PDVSA tried to recruit to arrange a meeting with Exxon’s management when the former CEO of the oil company, Rex Tillerson, was serving as Trump’s secretary of state.
Wiss received about half of the six million in monthly payments of $ 250,000 before receiving instructions, like Rivera, to pass the invoices to PDVSA in Caracas in April 2018, according to the documents. On one occasion, he traveled to the Venezuelan capital to meet with then-Foreign Minister Delcy Rodríguez, who was in charge of international relations on the PDVSA board of directors, according to two of the three people familiar with the pact. Rodríguez is now vice president of the country.
Wiss noted that his law firm never offers or has provided lobbying services, and that it never collected or received payments from PDVSA or anyone not related to the United States, suggesting that half of the contract would not have been paid.
“Wiss is committed solely to offering PDV USA and its partners legal services,” he wrote in an email response to questions.
The PDV USA board appointed by Guaidó considered that the hires of Wiss, Rivera and a third company, Caribbean Style Inc., should be registered under the rules of international lobbying. The Texas company Caribbean Style received $ 625,000 for four full-page advertisements in the New York Times and the Washington Post.
“The content from Venezuela and contrary to the United States sanctions of these announcements suggests that they sought to influence the perspective of the United States government or the United States population on the sanctions against Venezuela,” PDV USA said in its document, dated December 31. December.
In total, PDVSA sent $ 89 million to PDV USA between 2015 and March 2017 to pay US-based providers, according to the filing, which was first reported by Foreign Lobby Report, an online news service specializing in lobbying.
PDV USA noted that Wiss provided updates on disputes affecting PDVSA and advice on immigration, insurance and cryptocurrency.
“PDV USA is not aware of the full scope of legal work that Wiss could have performed under the contract,” the company explained, suggesting that Guaidó-appointed officials believe that its high rate could have covered additional services beyond those registered. The AP could not find any trace of Wiss acting on behalf of PDV USA or PDVSA in federal courts or in the large number of federal claims against Venezuela before a World Bank arbitration panel.
Wiss declined to clarify what legal services he provided or whether he had traveled to Caracas as part of his job, citing confidentiality between lawyers and clients. “Your information is false and, again, you are being misled,” he added.
Attorneys for Citgo’s new board of directors sued Rivera’s consultancy last year for breach of its contractual obligations. According to the complaint, Rivera, a former partner of fellow Republican senator Marco Rubio, could not describe any work done by his company, Interamerican Consulting, preparing only two of the seven promised biweekly progress reports, while collecting $ 15 million from the 50 agreed.
The objective of that contract was to enhance PDVSA’s “long-term reputation” and “prestige” among “interested parties” in the United States, according to a copy accessed by the AP.
Rivera’s political career was cut short by several electoral controversies, including allegedly orchestrating the undercover funding of an unknown Democratic candidate against his main rival in the congressional race in South Florida, and a state investigation into whether he hid a contract from a million dollars with a gambling company. He has never been charged with any crime.
This agreement is also being investigated by federal authorities in Miami because Rivera never registered with the Department of Justice, as required to lobby US officials on behalf of a foreign government.
Wiss also never registered as a foreign agent and there is no indication that she is being investigated.
Wiss worked for years as an attorney at Hogan Lovells, where PDVSA was a client, before opening her own law firm, Wiss & Partners, in 2016.
Randy Herschaft in New York contributed to this report.
Joshua Goodman is on Twitter at: @APJoshGoodman