TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Sen. Marco Rubio acknowledged on Tuesday through a spokesperson that he met with indicted ex-Rep. David Rivera to discuss a potential deal to normalize relations between the United States and Venezuela - but didn't know that his one-time friend and long-time political ally was working on behalf of strongman Nicolás Maduro.
Rubio's dealings with Rivera emerged Monday night after federal authorities arrested and charged the former Miami lawmaker with eight criminal counts, including money laundering, conspiracy and failing to register as a foreign agent for work allegedly connected to the Maduro regime.
An unsealed indictment states that Rivera and an unnamed U.S. senator from Florida met in July 2017 in Washington to discuss a possible deal with Maduro in which the Venezuelan leader would agree to "hold free and fair elections in Venezuela." The senator was not identified by name, but Rivera and Rubio have known each other for years and once owned a house together in Tallahassee.
Rivera and the senator first met to discuss Venezuela on July 9, 2017 at a private residence in D.C., according to the indictment The pair gathered three days later at a Washington hotel with several others, including an unidentified Venezuelan politician who attended the meeting by telephone, according to the indictment.
Rubio has been a harsh critic of Venezuela and Maduro and was seen as influential in pressing the Trump administration to keep sanctions in place. Federal authorities have not accused Rubio of any wrongdoing and he was not identified by name in the indictment.
In an emailed statement, however, a spokesperson for Rubio said that "during a July 2017 meeting, Mr. Rivera told Senator Rubio that close Maduro associate Raul Gorrín wanted to personally deliver a letter from the dictator to the President outlining an agreement to hold free and fair elections and exit power. A few days later Gorrin came to a brief meeting in Washington, but produced no such letter and failed to even mention the possibility of any such deal."
The statement added that "as the indictment explicitly indicates, Mr. Rivera and his associates 'never disclosed to any of the United States officials who they met that they were lobbying on behalf of the Government of Venezuela.' And it lays out how Senator Rubio communicated directly what he has said publicly for over five years, that the only way sanctions should be lifted is if the regime agrees to free and fair elections. If, as is alleged, this was an effort to soften his stance on sanctions, it failed miserably."
The statement from Rubio's office stands in contrast to the remarks he made during an interview with a Miami television station back in August. When asked by CBS Miami's Jim DeFede about Rivera, Rubio criticized media outlets who were mentioning him in coverage of Rivera's dealings with the Venezuelan government. Rivera's alleged business with the Maduro regime first surfaced through a lawsuit by a subsidiary of Venezuela's state-owned oil company against the former congressman.
"Everyone's hoping that there's some sort of linkage to me," Rubio said at the time. "Not a single one of these articles claims that there is and if they did, they'd be lying. The truth of the matter is that has nothing to do with me. But people like to ask it because they think it'd be interesting if there was something there. Nothing to do with me."
DeFede initially asked if Rubio had "ever had a conversation with David Rivera regarding his representation of Venezuela." Rubio replied, "No, but I can tell you this, that it had nothing to do with me." He added: "we've worked closely, but not on this."
A spokesperson for Rubio noted that the initial question was about Rivera's "representation of Venezuela." He repeated that Rubio did not know that Rivera was working on behalf of a company linked to the Maduro regime.
Rubio's office did not answer additional questions, including whether he was interviewed by the FBI regarding Rivera.
Rivera, who represented a Miami-area district from 2011 to 2013, was arrested at the Atlanta airport on Monday in connection with a Miami grand jury indictment issued last month. Both Rivera and his former political consultant, Esther Nuhfer, were charged in the indictment, which alleges Rivera received as much as $20 million in payments for his work on behalf of Venezuela, then split the funds with Nuhfer and others.
The indictment states that - beginning in 2017, shortly after former President Donald Trump took office - Rivera and Nuhfer were sought out to help lobby politicians on behalf of Venezuela and gain political support to normalize relations with the U.S.
The indictment goes over the efforts launched by Rivera and others to reach a deal and included snippets of exchanges between Rivera and others. In one encrypted text message Rivera sent to those involved in the effort, he stated that the senator was meeting the next day with Trump and would "tell him that he has the possibility in his hands to solve the crisis…" Rivera also exchanged texts with the senator and told him the U.S. should "facilitate, not just support, a negotiated solution" as well as "no vengeance, reconciliation."
A day after the second meeting with the senator, the indictment says Nuhfer sent a text message that said "no more mtgs until we get a slice." Rivera sent a text that same day to Nuhfer that told her to tell an unnamed individual to "tell his new BFF the bus driver to pay us for the mtg" with the senator, adding "since there will b no turkey wout him." Bus driver was a code name for Maduro, the indictment alleges.
Before his brief stint in Congress, Rivera served in the Florida Legislature, rising to the post of budget chief in the state House. Rivera, who had been the subject of investigations in the past over his congressional campaign and consulting work he had done, maintained ties with Republicans and showed up at the Florida Capitol two weeks during the biennial organizational session.