Judge blasts prosecutors' handling of Venezuela case against ex-Miami congressman

A federal judge in Miami blasted prosecutors for an attempt to undercut a court order and try to take control of an oceanside condo belonging to a former Republican Congressman ahead of a high-profile trial connected to a $50 million consulting contract with Venezuela’s government

Joshua Goodman
Friday 28 July 2023 22:50 BST
US Venezuela Congressman
US Venezuela Congressman (Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

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A federal judge in Miami on Friday blasted prosecutors for an apparent attempt to disavow a court order and take control of a oceanside condo belonging to a former Republican Congressman ahead of a high-profile trial connected to a $50 million consulting contract with Venezuela's socialist government.

When David Rivera and an associate were charged last November with money laundering and acting as unregistered foreign agents for President Nicolás Maduro's government, prosecutors obtained a judge’s order freezing around $24 million from banking and brokerage accounts as well as Florida properties that they said were the product of ill-gotten gains.

Prosecutors also blocked eight more properties belonging to Rivera and his associate in Florida and Georgia that, while unrelated to criminal activity, would likely be seized if the two are found guilty.

This month, in a harshly worded ruling, Magistrate Judge Edwin Torres said that the government had no right to take the “innocent” Florida assets without a conviction. Rather than lift the restraining order, the government then asked the court to reconsider and said that it had since determined that three of the properties — including a condo that Rivera and his wife purchased in 2019 for $301,000 in New Smyrna Beach, Florida — could also be traced to the defendants' alleged lobbying on behalf of Maduro's government.

Judge Darrin Gayles on Friday expressed frustration with the government’s change in strategy.

“This reeks of gamesmanship,” said Gayles, who reversed his own sealed order of a week ago granting prosecutors' request that the real estate properties once again be frozen. “It seems like the government simply filed this because it lost.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney Nalina Sombuntham said prosecutors first learned from investigators that the property could be directly “tainted” by Rivera's consulting work with Venezuela in May or June but didn’t alert the court until July 14 — a week after Magistrate Judge Edwin Torres issued his 23-page order freeing up the properties.

Gayles, who is overseeing the criminal case, was unimpressed. “It seems like you’re wasting the court’s time," he said.

Rivera has been marred by scandals stretching back to his days in Congress from 2011 to 2013. He was arrested late last year on an eight-count criminal indictment alleging that at the start of the Trump administration he was part of a conspiracy to lobby on behalf of Venezuela to lower tensions with the U.S., resolve a legal dispute with a U.S. oil company and end U.S. sanctions against the South American nation — all without registering as a foreign agent.

As part of that effort, he arranged meetings in Washington, New York and Dallas for allies of Maduro with U.S. lawmakers and a top aide to former President Donald Trump, according to the indictment. To hide the sensitive nature of his work, prosecutors allege Rivera referred to Maduro in chat messages as the “bus driver,” a congressman as “Sombrero” and millions of dollars as “melons.”

Court records show Rivera’s consulting work was closely coordinated with Raúl Gorrín, a Venezuelan insider and media tycoon who has himself been sanctioned and indicted in the U.S. on money laundering charges. Part of the more than $20 million that Rivera was alleged to have received from Venezuela was used to pay maintenance on one of Gorrin's yachts, according to prosecutors.

Rivera maintains that Gorrín was his attorney in Venezuela and that all of his work was conducted on behalf of PDV USA — a Delaware-based affiliate of Venezuelan-owned Citgo — and didn't require he register as a foreign agent.

The dispute over Rivera's assets has slowed the government's prosecution of the high-profile case. Eight months after being charged, Rivera has yet to be formally arraigned — normally a routine procedural step — because he said he needs access to the disputed assets to pay his attorneys.

Rivera’s attorneys in filings have accused prosecutors of waging a “scorched earth attack” against the south Florida GOP stalwart who once shared an apartment in Tallahassee with now Sen. Marco Rubio when both were state lawmakers.

“They lost, they got caught and they came to this court and it is wrong,” David Oscar Markus, an attorney for Rivera’s co-defendant Esther Nuhfer said.

Rivera was triumphant following Friday’s hearing, accusing the prosecutors of “misconduct.” Judge Gayles was more restrained, making no such finding of wrongdoing even as he questioned prosecutors' actions.

“Today’s decision shows that there are still honorable judges in America who will not tolerate misconduct from dishonest government prosecutors,” Rivera wrote The Associated Press in a text message. “Another victory for truth and justice.”

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in the Southern District of Florida didn't immediately comment.

Follow Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman

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