Former Miami Republican congressman David Rivera is under federal investigation for possible violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, as well as failing to register as an agent of Venezuela's socialist regime, according to four sources familiar with the case who spoke to Univision.
The investigation, conducted by the FBI and federal prosecutors in Miami, began in 2017 and is ongoing, according to the sources, though they expressed concern over its slow progress.
The sources consulted by Univision and who asked not to be identified so as not to hinder the investigation, explained that the FBI has questioned several witnesses about Rivera's bank transactions and that prosecutors are in possession of potentially incriminating text messages from Rivera.
Rivera is being investigated for payments involving officials or citizens of another country and for not having registered as an agent of a foreign government while carrying out activities for the benefit of the regime of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, they said.
The Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) considers this omission a criminal violation. The FARA law stipulates that people who are paid by a foreign government for public relations or political consulting must register their activity with the Department of Justice.
Last week, Univision revealed that Rivera’s consulting firm does not appear in the register of foreign agents even though it signed a $50 million contract in 2017 with PDV USA, a subsidiary of Venezuela's state oil company (PDVSA), to improve the company's image with the U.S. government.
Rivera, 54, has fended off at least four previous investigations that dented his political career, but none with such potential international ramifications as this.
New York lawsuit
Rivera's firm, Interamerican Consulting, was sued in a New York court for breach of contract. The lawsuit was filed by PDV USA, now under the control of the government headed by Maduro’s rival, Juan Guaido, who was recognized last year as Venezuela’s legitimate president by the Trump administration.
PDV USA suspended payments to the former congressman's company for failure to fulfill the contract, according to the lawsuit, which alleged that Rivera received a total $15 million between March 21 and April 18 2017.
Rivera denied the allegations and his lawyer, Roy Kahn, said he had no knowledge of any federal investigation into his client.
“ Fake news. Another witch hunt, same as Trump and Russia,” Rivera told Univision in a text message responding to questions about the investigation.
Two of the sources familiar with the investigation expressed concern that it was being held up for fear of the political consequences of bringing allegations against a close ally of the influential. Florida Senator Marco Rubio.
Rubio and Rivera are known to be close friends since the days when they were members of the Florida legislature and shared a house in Tallahassee.
Asked by Univision if the U.S. Attorney’s office in Miami had contacted him about the investigation into Rivera, or if he had made inquiries of his own, Senator Rubio responded: " I am sure that if the federal authorities have reason to believe that the laws on this matter have been violated, they will seek justice," he said.
Last week, Rubio said he was not aware of Rivera’s contract until it was reported by The New York Times.
“If the facts are as they have been reported, it would be deeply disappointing news,” said Rubio, who was nominated last week as acting chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.
A spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Southern District of Florida told Univision that it could not comment because of the department's policies. "I cannot confirm or deny that we are investigating the person or circumstances that you describe," she said.
The FBI declined to comment for this story. "In a request like this, we would neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation," an FBI spokesperson told Univision.
One source familiar with the investigation told Univision that the FBI and federal prosecutors realized that Rivera made numerous deposits with banks in South Florida in 2017. The deposits were allegedly in amounts under $10,000 - a practice known as 'smurfing' - that avoids bank reporting requirements to financial authorities under the Bank Secrecy Laws to prevent money laundering.
In the midst of that investigation, the source added, there was an incident in which Rivera allegedly rammed the car of an FBI agent who was watching him. Univision was unable to find a police report of the incident.
Rivera denied that the incident happened and described the accusation as "comical."
His attorney, Kahn, told Univision that he did recall an incident involving a law enforcement vehicle, although he said it never resulted in charges.
Rivera's opposition ties
When the c ontract was signed with Miami-based Rivera's Interamerican Consulting on March 21, 2017, President Donald Trump had only been in the White House for only two months. But Maduro already had good reason to be concerned about his country's relations with the United States under the new Trump administration.
Just a month after taking office, Trump announced a major change in U.S. policy toward Venezuela after an unexpected Oval Office meeting with Lilian Tintori, the wife of the most prominent Venezuelan political prisoner, Leopoldo López, and Senator Rubio.
According to Rivera, Lopez and his wife were beneficiaries of his contract. Part of them, Rivera said, were used to get López out of jail. López was transferred from a military prison to house arrest in July 2017.
A spokesperson for the López-Tintori family denied Rivera's version.
"Once again we categorically ratify that Mr. Rivera's statements are absolutely absurd and false," he said.
" It is absurd to want to associate Leopoldo López with a contract signed with representatives of the Maduro regime, just at the moment when that same regime had him isolated and tortured in a military prison for thinking differently, something that earned him the title of Prisoner of Conscience, given by Amnesty International," they added.
Rivera said that it was Tintori who introduced him to PDV USA and helped him secure the contract. Lopez and Tintori knew of "the entire operation," he said.
"Tell Leopoldo to ask his wife Lilian who paid for the living expenses or her and her children in 2017, and who helped to get him out of prison in July 2017?" Rivera wrote.
" If Lilian does not remember, I can send Leopoldo all of Lilian's texts talking about these issues," he added.
One of the sources familiar with the investigation said that the prosecution is also investigating whether Venezuelan officials received money through Rivera. The source indicated that the person who ordered the drafting of the $50 million agreement in favor of Rivera's company was Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodriguez on the recommendation of Raul Gorrin, a Venezuelan media magnate close to the Maduro regime.
Rivera said he met Gorrín in February 2017 during a meeting in Miami with Tintori, but added that Gorrin was not involved in his consulting contract.
At that time Gorrín often came to Miami where he had a mansion and a yacht in the exclusive community of Cocoplum. In 2018, he abandoned the United States and forfeited his properties after being placed on a sanctions list by the Treasury Department.
He has since been charged in Miami with money laundering and placed on a Department of Homeland Security ‘Most Wanted’ list.
Univision was unable to reach Gorrin to ask for comment.
Univision contacted Jorge Rodriguez, the Venezuelan Minister of Communication and brother of vice president Delcy Rodriguez, to request comment for this story, but he did not respond.
US officials briefed?
Rivera does not deny his company signed the contract. But he clarified that he did not associate with congressmen or try to influence any U.S. official because all the money was "transferred" to be used "at the direction of the leadership of the Venezuelan opposition," as if it were an operation to deceive the Maduro regime.
In addition, he said that everything he did was with the knowledge of senior U.S. officials.
Rivera said he had documents and photos that would show he was telling the truth about financial support for the opposition, but that he was not prepared to share them with Univision at this time.
Rivera claimed that he did not violate the foreign agent rules, arguing that PDV USA is a company registered in the United States.
"I'm not sure [that explanation] can withstand judicial scrutiny," said David Weinstein,a former federal prosecutor now in private practice in Miami.
He noted that at the time PDV USA was a subsidiary of PDVSA, under the control of the Maduro government. The PDVSA board is made up of some of Maduro's most loyal loyalists, including Asdrubal Chávez, a cousin of the late President Hugo Chávez.
"He never informed us."
Two former senior US officials in charge of Venezuela's policy at the time say they are baffled by Rivera's claims that the U.S. government was aware of his funding effort for the opposition.
"That is not the case at all. I was never informed about this and would never have endorsed this kind of thing," said Fernando Cutz, former senior director for South America at the National Security Council in 2017 . "There is no one who can confirm or deny this better than me,'' he added, noting that he was in daily touch with
Juan Cruz, who directed Latin American politics at the NSC from April 2017 to August 2018, agrees with Cutz. " We never heard of Rivera and he never informed us," he said.
2017: summer of protests
Other funds, according to Rivera, were used to finance activities against the Maduro regime, including massive anti-government street protest in the summer of 2017, "to overthrow Maduro."
At the time, Venezuela was plunging deeper and deeper into political crisis in a battle for control of parliament. Opposition and government forces announced rival street protests, the start of intense weeks of violent protests with at least 160 deaths.
Rivera said that the diversion of the funds was approved by dissident Citgo executives, some of whom were arrested later that year in Venezuela.
At the time of the arrest, the Venezuelan government reported that these officials, now known as the 'Citgo 6', were facing embezzlement charges in connection with a proposal to refinance $4 billion in Citgo bonds. The Venezuelan government did not say whether the detainees were related to Rivera's alleged diversion of funds for the opposition.
Relatives of the Citgo 6 deny that they had anything to do with Rivera or the Venezuelan opposition. " The Citgo 6 were not involved in politics. They are not managers, they work in refineries, ”said Alirio Rafael Zambrano, the younger brother of two of the detainees.
Several people who may have been involved in approving the contract are now dead or in jail in Venezuela, including former oil minister Nelson Martínez, who died in jail in December 2018, reportedly of kidney problems. Former Citgo president José Pereira is one of the Citgo 6 arrested in November 2017.
The Rivera contract was uncovered in the wake of the political crisis between the United States and Venezuela in January last year when the Trump administration, along with dozens of other countries, withdrew its support for the Maduro government in favor of Guaido.
This resulted in a change in the board of PDV Holdings, a US subsidiary of PDVSA, and owner of Citgo Petroleum, the operator of three major oil refineries in the United States, as well as supplying fuel to the independent chain of 5,500 gas stations in 29 states.
PDV Holdings came under the control of Venezuelan officials loyal to Guaidó, and a new board was appointed to manage Citgo in February 2019.
Citgo's financial records related to the Rivera contract were also released to the Justice Department as part of a much larger U.S. probe of corruption at the highest levels of PDVSA, according to a source familiar with that investigation. When an auditor was hired to examine the books, Rivera's contract was uncovered, the source said.
Legal experts say it is only a matter of time before the records are made public as part of the "discovery" court process, which legally requires that all relevant documents, including bank statements, be released to the plaintiff, PDV USA.
Rivera, a Cuban-American who was in Congress between 2011 and 2013, has seen his political career collapse after a series of scandals related to allegations of electoral fraud and ethics violations.
Rivera was linked to a federal criminal investigation for electoral fraud in 2012. Two people pleaded guilty and served time in that case, and although Rivera was named as a co-conspirator, he never faced court charges. He ran for the Florida House of Representatives in 2016 but lost and has since disappeared from the public scene.
The lawsuit against Rivera was met with shock in Miami, where Rivera has long been a fervent critic of Maduro's socialist regime.
In 2011 Rivera led a campaign to declare the Venezuelan Consul in Miami persona non grata, after Univision showed her talking about an alleged cyber attack on federal buildings in the United States while serving in a diplomatic position in Mexico.
Both friends and enemies have a hard time understanding how Rivera, given his conservative political views, could have become involved with a socialist regime that the United States government has accused of massive political and financial corruption, as well as narcoterrorism.
U.S. Senator Bob Menéndez of New Jersey has written to the Justice Department to discover if Rivera was registered as an agent of a foreign government when he signed the 2017 contract with the Maduro regime.
"If you take the Government of the United States seriously in our efforts to defend and protect the Venezuelan people from the tyranny of the Maduro regime, the last thing we should tolerate is a former member of Congress who potentially violates the laws of the United States. while doing the dirty work of the regime in the United States," Menéndez said.