A consulting firm owned by a former Miami congressman who was roommates with Sen. Marco Rubio and shared his anti-communist politics has been sued over allegedly breaking a $50 million consulting contract with Nicolas Maduro's socialist government.
The lawsuit against David Rivera's Interamerican Consulting was filed Wednesday in New York federal court by Maduro's opponents who now control the U.S. subsidiary of PDVSA, the Venezuelan state-run oil giant.
According to the lawsuit, PDVSA in early 2017 hired Interamerican for three months of consulting work aimed at improving PDVSA's “long-term reputation” and “standing” among “targeted stakeholders" in the U.S.
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But the lawsuit alleges that the Cuban-American Republican failed to describe any work that he 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.
At the time, Maduro was trying to curry favor with the Trump administration, avoiding outright criticism of the new U.S. president while funneling $500,000 to his inaugural committee through Citgo, PDVSA's Houston-based subsidiary.
The effort fell flat. Encouraged by Rubio, who arranged a White House meeting between President Donald Trump and the wife of jailed opposition activist Leopoldo Lopez, the U.S. gradually ratcheted up pressure on Maduro and in August 2017 slapped the first of gradually more restrictive sanctions on PDVSA.
The $50 million PDVSA agreed to pay Interamerican, which lists as its business address Rivera's Miami home, dwarfs the $12.5 million that Maduro agreed this year to pay Florida law firm Foley Lardner for five months of public relations and lobby work. Foley Lardner later backed out of the agreement amid an outcry from conservative critics who accused it of carrying water for a socialist dictator.
Pedro Burelli, a former PDVSA board member and staunch opposition supporter, said the hiring of Rivera for such a high amount may be more about laundering money for Maduro insiders than actually performing real lobbying work.
"There is nothing legal Mr. Rivera was in a position to do for Maduro for 10 times less money,“ said Burelli from Washington. “Understanding the real deliverables of this contract might drag many more into this unsightly scandal.”
The lawsuit says Rivera “performed no meaningful services under the Agreement, and certainly did not perform the level of services that might reasonably be expected for a fee of approximately $17 million per month."
The Trump administration has since handed ownership of PDVSA's assets in the U.S., including Citgo, to representatives of opposition leader Juan Guaidó, who it recognizes as Venezuela's rightful leader.
Asked about the contract, Rivera said in a text message to “ask the Citgo 6,” referring to the five American citizens and a U.S. legal resident who have been detained in a Venezuelan prison since November 2017 — six months after the contract was signed.
"They managed that entire operation, including all the money, in coordination with the Venezuelan opposition, including Leopoldo Lopez. That’s all I know," he said without answering any further questions and refusing to explain himself. The AP could not verify his account.
Through a spokesperson, López denied any involvement in the contract, which was signed while he was still isolated in a Caracas military prison.
Rivera, 54, is a former high-ranking state legislator who shared a house in Tallahassee with then-House Speaker Rubio. He has been embroiled in several election-related controversies since then, 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. Rivera has never been charged with a crime.
Rivera served a single term in Congress, from 2011-2013, and during that time honored Venezuelan exiles fleeing socialist rule and co-sponsored legislation seeking to withhold funding from the Organization of American States until it confronted then President Hugo Chávez for allegedly violating Venezuela's constitution.
Rubio, speaking to reporters Wednesday on Capitol Hill, said “I only know what has been reported today in the New York Times. But if the facts are as they have been reported, it would be deeply disappointing news."
AP Writer Curt Anderson contributed to this report from Miami.