Democrats are sharpening attacks on a former congressman who was quietly elected to the Miami GOP's executive committee despite a federal investigation into a $50 million lobbying contract with a favorite Republican target in South Florida: Venezuela's socialist government.
David Rivera's election to the 160-member committee, which has not been previously reported, was largely overlooked amid the results of Miami's Aug. 18 primaries.
Rivera, who lost his reelection attempt in 2012 but retains strong name recognition, won 35% of the ballots cast by Republicans in the 23rd District of Miami-Dade County.
Democrats are hopeful the scandal-plagued politician's comeback attempt could undermine what they see as red-baiting by the Trump campaign, which compares Democratic nominee Joe Biden's policies to those of Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.
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The Trump campaign frequently touts the president's record for confronting the embattled socialist, a stance popular with Cuban and Venezuelan exiles who hold major sway in a battleground state the president must win to remain in the White House.
“Make no mistake, by electing David Rivera into its leadership, the Republican Party has shown that it is the party of Maduro,” said Steve Simeonidis, the Democratic chair in Miami-Dade.
Kevin Munoz, a spokesman for the Biden campaign in Florida, said: “The GOP is making a mockery of the fight for democracy and freedom for Venezuela and their words are nothing more than a calculated, cynical, and empty political ploy to score votes in Florida.”
In May, Florida Democrats called for a congressional investigation into Rivera’s business dealings with Venezuela’s state-owned oil monopoly, PDVSA, after a lawsuit revealed that his consulting firm had been awarded a three-month, $50 million consulting contract in 2017 to improve PDVSA’s “long-term reputation” among “targeted stakeholders” in the U.S.
Lawyers for Citgo — the Houston subsidiary of PDVSA now controlled by Maduro's opponents — alleged that Rivera’s firm failed to describe any work that he had performed while collecting the first $15 million of the agreed-to fee.
Federal prosecutors in Miami are also investigating the contract because Rivera never registered as an agent of a foreign government, according to a U.S. law enforcement official on the condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing probe.
The contract came as a shock to Miami residents, who identify Rivera with the anti-communist politics of Republican Sen. Marco Rubio, with whom he shared a house when both were in the Florida state legislature.
Even some Republicans are uneasy about Rivera becoming a standard bearer of their party in Florida’s most-populous district.
The allegations against Rivera are “highly disturbing, troublesome and of great importance,” said Andreina Kissane, president of the Venezuelan American Republican Alliance in Miami. If proven true, “the consequences should be swift, defining and send a message that corruption will not be tolerated.”
Rivera on Monday sent The Associated Press a text message almost identical to one he sent in May claiming that he wasn’t actually working with PDVSA but rather with the Venezuelan opposition to undermine Maduro’s rule. He provided no evidence to back his claim but said the Trump administration was fully aware and that he welcomed any scrutiny.
“Voters realized everything else is fake news,” Rivera added.
Rivera served a single term in Congress, from 2011-2013. He has been embroiled in controversies, including orchestrating the stealth funding of an unknown Democratic candidate to take on a rival in a congressional race and a state investigation into whether he hid a $1 million contract with a gambling firm. He has never been charged with a crime.
Nelson Díaz, the outgoing chair of the Republican party in Miami, said every American has the right to a defense and disputed the Democrats' claims that Rivera's alleged actions expose Republican hypocrisy regarding Venezuela.
Under Trump’s leadership, the U.S. has imposed stiff sanctions on Venezuela in a bid to force Maduro from power and boost Juan Guaidó, who is now recognized by 60 nations to be the country’s legitimate leader.
“Trump has done more to stifle Maduro and the Castro regime than every president before him put together,” said Díaz, the son of Cuban immigrants who fled the communist-run island. "They will grasp at any straw they can to attack Republicans on an issue on which they can’t stand toe to toe with Trump.”
Follow Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman.