Venezuela Hired Democratic Party Donor for $6 Million

January 30, 2021 Updated: January 31, 2021

MIAMI—Venezuela’s socialist government previously hired a longtime Democratic Party donor for $6 million at the same time it was lobbying to discourage the U.S. from imposing sanctions on the oil-rich nation, newly filed lobbying records (pdf) show.

The documents, which were disclosed on Jan. 28, indicate that a U.S. subsidiary of Venezuela’s state oil giant PDVSA agreed to hire Marcia Wiss’s Washington law firm in March 2017. That’s the same month it signed a consulting deal for $50 million with scandal-tainted former Rep. David Rivera.

Wiss, an international trade lawyer with a history of donations to the Democratic Party, including a $1,500 contribution to Joe Biden last year, denies that she did any lobbying work.

Her former client—now under new management—said it was unaware of the full extent of her work toward determining if it constituted political activities benefiting Nicolás Maduro’s government. The PDVSA subsidiary also took the unusual step of registering retroactively as a foreign agent, disclosing the contracts with Rivera, Wiss, and a third vendor.

The contracts have come to light as allies of opposition leader Juan Guaidó work with the U.S. Justice Department to uncover any corrupt dealings at another wholly-owned PDVSA subsidiary, Houston-based Citgo, which for years operated as a cash cow for Venezuela’s ruling party. A Guaidó-appointed board wrested control of Citgo, the sixth-largest independent U.S. refiner, after the Trump administration recognized him as Venezuela’s rightful leader in 2019.

The same Guaidó-appointed officials behind the new foreign lobby filings last year sued Rivera for allegedly breaking his consulting contract. Federal prosecutors in Miami are also investigating whether the Republican broke foreign lobbying rules.

Epoch Times Photo
Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro speaks during a ceremony marking the start of the judicial year at the Supreme Court in Caracas, Venezuela, on Jan. 22, 2021. (Matias Delacroix/AP Photo)

Wiss collected about half of the $6 million in monthly installments of $250,000 before being instructed, like Rivera, to bill PDVSA back in Caracas in April 2018, according to the filings. On one occasion, she traveled to Caracas to meet with then Foreign Minister Delcy Rodríguez, who was a PDVSA board member in charge of international relations, according to two of the three people familiar with the deal. Rodríguez is now Venezuela’s vice president.

Wiss says her law firm doesn’t and never has provided lobbying services. She added that the firm never invoiced or ever received payment from PDVSA or any non-U.S. related party—suggesting that half of the contract went unpaid.

“Wiss was engaged to provide PDV USA and its affiliates with legal services only,” she wrote in an e-mailed response to questions.

But the Guaido-appointed board of PDV USA deemed that the hiring of Wiss, Rivera, and a third company, Caribbean Style Inc., required it to register under foreign lobbying rules. The Texas-based Caribbean Style was paid $625,000 to place four full-page advertisements in The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Juan Guaido
Opposition leader Juan Guaido speaks to the media during a news conference the day after the parliamentary election in Caracas, Venezuela, on Dec. 7, 2020. (Manaure Quintero/Reuters)

“The pro-Venezuelan and anti-U.S. sanctions content of these advertisements suggests they were intended to influence the U.S. government or the U.S. public’s perspective of the U.S. sanctions regime rating to Venezuela,” PDV USA said in its filing, which is dated Dec. 31.

In total, PDVSA sent $89 million to PDV USA between 2015 and March 2017 to pay U.S.-based vendors, according to the filing, which was first reported by Foreign Lobby Report, an online news service that tracks the influence industry.

PDV USA said Wiss provided updates on disputes involving PDVSA and advice on immigration, insurance, and cryptocurrency.

But it added that “PDV USA is unaware of the full extent of the legal work that Wiss may have been performing under the retainer,” suggesting that what Guaidó-appointed officials consider a high fee may have covered additional services for which it has no record. The AP could find no record of Wiss appearing on behalf of PDV USA or PDVSA in federal court or in the large number of commercial claims against Venezuela before a World Bank arbitration panel.

Wiss wouldn’t say what legal services she performed, or whether she had traveled to Caracas as part of her work, citing lawyer-client privilege.

“Your information is false and you are being again misled,” she added.

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The logo of the Venezuelan state oil company PDVSA is seen next to a mural depicting Venezuela’s late President Hugo Chavez at a gas station in Caracas, Venezuela, on March 2, 2017. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

Wiss never registered as a foreign agent and there’s no indication that she herself is under investigation.

Wiss was a longtime lawyer at Hogan Lovells, where PDVSA was a client, before starting her own boutique firm, Wiss & Partners, in 2016.

By Joshua Goodman