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Rubio’s long friendship with David Rivera faces new scrutiny over charges

Each time former congressman David Rivera (R-Fla.) has run into trouble with state and federal investigators over the last decade, his longtime friend and political ally, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), has grappled with awkward questions about their relationship.

But Rivera was never criminally charged in any of those cases — until now. His Monday arrest on charges of illegally lobbying for Venezuela is once again putting Rubio on the spot, although the senator, who is vice chairman on the Intelligence Committee, is not accused of any wrongdoing in the case.

According to the indictment, Rivera attended a July 2017 meeting in the D.C. home of an unnamed U.S. senator where he delivered a message that Venezuelan dictator Nicolás Maduro had supposedly been persuaded to hold a free election. Rubio and Rivera met a second time to discuss Venezuela, with others, at a Washington hotel, the indictment says.

On Tuesday, Rubio’s office acknowledged that he is the senator referenced in the indictment. He did meet with Rivera in July 2017 about the potential deal with Maduro — which never materialized — but Rivera never said he was lobbying on behalf of Venezuela, according to Rubio spokesman Dan Holler.

Rubio, the son of Cuban immigrants and a staunch critic of the socialist Maduro regime — who at one time required extra security over a Venezuelan assassination threat — has long argued that U.S. sanctions should be lifted only if free and fair elections are held, Holler said. “If, as is alleged, this was an effort to soften his stance on sanctions, it failed miserably,” he added.

For Rubio, who handily won reelection last month, Rivera’s indictment is both personal and political. Personal because they have known each other for three decades and their careers have been closely intertwined. Political because Venezuelan policy is a signature issue for the senator in light of the large exile community he represents in Florida.

Venezuelan’s state-operated oil company signed a $50 million contract with Rivera as it sought to prevent the United States from imposing further economic sanctions against Maduro and his associates, the indictment says.

“It seems fairly obvious that Rivera used his relationship with Rubio as an important element of his story to the Venezuelan government,” former U.S. representative Carlos Curbelo (R-Fla.) said. “That of course is uncomfortable and will force Rubio to address exactly what happened. For at least a decade now, he’s had to answer uncomfortable questions about his friend.”

An attorney representing Rivera declined to comment Tuesday.

Before the indictment, Rubio was careful when asked about Rivera’s dealings with Venezuela and didn’t reveal their 2017 meeting at his house. Asked in August by the Miami CBS affiliate whether he had spoken to Rivera about his representation of Venezuela, Rubio said, “No, but I can tell you this that it has nothing to do with me … I’ve never discussed it with him. I haven’t spoken to him in a while.”

Federal authorities charged Rivera, 57, with conspiracy to launder money and with failing to register as a foreign agent, among other alleged offenses, according to an indictment against him that was first reported by the Associated Press. Rivera and one of his longtime associates, Esther Nuhfer, are accused of acting as lobbyists for Venezuela without properly disclosing that they were acting as foreign agents, a violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

The 34-page indictment details how Rivera, a former Florida state legislator who served in the House between 2011 and 2013, allegedly enriched himself by secretly acting on behalf of the Venezuela government to try to influence relations between the South American country and the United States.

Prosecutors say at least $23 million was “derived from the alleged offenses.” Rivera and his associates were paid through a U.S. subsidiary of the oil company, the indictment says.

In 2017 and 2018, according to the indictment, Rivera attempted to coordinate meetings with top U.S. officials, including an unnamed White House adviser, a senator and a member of Congress. The member of Congress traveled to Venezuela to meet with Madura.

All the while, Rivera and Nuhfer communicated through encrypted messages and used code words to possibly obscure their actions, the indictment says. In their texts, they referred to Maduro as the “El Guaguero,” the Spanish word for bus driver and a U.S. congressman as “Sombrero.”

“It was the purpose of the conspiracy for [Rivera and Nuhfer] to unlawfully enrich themselves by engaging in political activities in the United States on behalf of the Government of Venezuela, and by representing the interests of the Government of Venezuela before officials of the United States government, in an effort to influence United States foreign policy toward Venezuela,” the indictment reads.

Rivera and Rubio’s friendship dates to an introduction as volunteers on Lincoln Diaz-Balart’s winning 1992 congressional campaign. Rivera then recruited Rubio four years later to work on Bob Dole’s presidential campaign, as The Washington Post chronicled.

The pair shared Cuban American heritage and a passion for conservative politics, which Rivera first embraced as a teenage Youth For Reagan volunteer and then, after college, a staffer for Sen. Connie Mack III (R-Fla.).

When Rubio ran for city commission in West Miami and then a state House seat in 2000, Rivera backed him; Rubio repaid the favor by helping Rivera win his own state House seat two years later.

Their partnership blossomed in Tallahassee, where they jointly purchased a home and lived together while collaborating in the statehouse.

“There were always two phrases to define them,” Christian Ulvert, a Democratic strategist who once worked with Rivera on a campaign to bring slot machines to Miami-Dade County, told The Post’s Ben Terris in 2015. “Batman and Robin, and good cop and bad cop. Marco was always out front trying to be friendly, and David Rivera was always behind the scenes doing the heavy lifting.”

But the relationship soon began to weigh on Rubio’s political ambitions as the pair both aimed at D.C. in 2010, with Rivera running for a House seat and Rubio running for Senate. First, the home that the pair co-owned in Tallahassee went into foreclosure — the result of a dispute with a bank over mortgage fees, Rubio later said. (They sold the home in 2015).

Then news reporters covering Rivera’s congressional campaign surfaced a 2002 case in which he slammed his car on the highway into a truck carrying his opponent’s campaign fliers; Rivera said he was trying to pull over the truck to get his own campaign materials from inside.

After they both won their 2010 races, Rivera faced an escalating series of scandals and brushes with prosecutors — cases that have inevitably led to questions for Rubio about the relationship.

In 2011, Miami-Dade prosecutors prepared a lengthy draft indictment to charge Rivera with 52 counts of theft, money laundering and racketeering, the Miami Herald reported — but later dropped the case when Rivera’s attorneys pushed back, eventually citing statute of limitations issues. Rivera dismissed the investigation as “frivolous” to the Herald.

Prosecutors later named Rivera as a co-conspirator in a failed 2012 scheme to enter a shadow candidate in the Democratic primary to undermine his biggest rival. Rivera’s former girlfriend told a federal grand jury that he helped her flee to Nicaragua after plotting a coverup and funneling more than $81,000 through her to fuel the plot. Rivera was never charged in the case and disputed his girlfriend’s claims.

In the meantime, Rivera also faced state and federal investigations into whether he properly paid taxes.

He was never charged in any of those cases. And through his run for president in 2016, Rubio was mostly steadfast in his support for Rivera — while noting he had nothing to do with his legal woes.

“He’s a friend, and I’m going to give him the benefit of the doubt,” Rubio told Fox News in 2012, as Mitt Romney was vetting Rubio as a potential running mate. In 2015, Rivera told with The Post that he and Rubio remained friends.

But more recently, Rubio has sought to distance himself from Rivera. “I haven’t spoken to him for a very long time,” Rubio told the Miami Herald in May.

Since 2020, Rivera has been embroiled in legal battles over the $50 million lobbying contract he signed in 2017 with an American subsidiary of Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, Petróleos de Venezuela S.A., or PDVSA.

The American PDVSA subsidiary sued him two years ago, alleging he did little meaningful work for it. The case is ongoing, and Rivera has maintained his innocence. He countersued PDV USA last year, alleging breach of contract.

The case came under particular scrutiny because Rivera has put anti-communism at the core of his political career.

Rivera was arrested Monday in Atlanta and has appeared before a judge there, according to a spokesperson for the U.S. Attorney’s office in Miami. He will appear in court in Miami at some point, the spokesperson said.

Alice Crites contributed to this report.

Editor’s note:

An earlier version of this article reported that Rivera was arrested at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, according to the Associated Press. The AP later corrected its report to say Rivera was arrested in Atlanta. This article has been updated.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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