Sources: Venezuela has punished Texas Republican to ease sanctions

Sources: Venezuela has punished Texas Republican to ease sanctions

MIAMI (AP) – The Socialist government of Venezuela attempted to recruit then Congressman Pete Sessions to secure a meeting with the CEO of Exxon Mobil, while secretly paying a close former House colleague $ 50 million to Keeping U.S. sanctions at bay, The Associated Press has learned.

An official of the state-led oil giant PDVSA sent an email to the Republican of Texas on June 8, 2017 asking for his help in arranging a meeting between the Venezuelan oil minister and Darren Woods, the successor to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. the helm of Irving, Texas-based Exxon. The goal: to lure Exxon back to Venezuela after a decade of absence and inject much-needed dynamism into the collapsing oil industry of the OPEC nation.

The email, seen by the AP, was shared with the U.S. federal law enforcement agency, investigating the person who allegedly instructed Sessions to send the email: former Miami congressman David Rivera, according to two people who were aware of the investigation and discussed the condition of anonymity to discuss the politically sensitive issue.

Rivera then collected a large chunk of a whopping $ 50 million contract for three months of consulting work for a U.S. unit of PDVSA – a business deal now under investigation by Miami federal prosecutors for never registering as an agent of a foreign government.

It is not clear how Sessions, which will return to Congress this fall, responded to the request, although it did not respond directly to the email. In any case, Exxon turned down the sought-after meeting in Dallas, the two people said.

But Sessions did other mediation efforts in Venezuela in the next 15 months.

At the urging of a Venezuelan media mogul who would become an outstanding American fugitive, he secretly traveled to Caracas in April 2018 to meet with President Nicolás Maduro. The businessman, Raul Gorrin, was present at the meeting, and Rivera served as a translator, said a third who was familiar with the visit, also on the condition of anonymity.

A few months later, Sessions telephoned the socialist leader with Rudy Giuliani, the US President’s personal lawyer, around the same time that both men were involved in another shadow diplomatic attempt to fire the US ambassador to Ukraine. Both men’s interest in Venezuela and Sessions’ advocacy for a Trump-Maduro meeting came as a surprise to John Bolton, according to the new book by the former national security adviser about his time at the White House.

The AP first reported the peace trip from Sessions to Caracas in 2018. The previous email about Exxon and its connection to Rivera was unknown at the time.

The role of sessions in the ultimately useless back channel, which is more extensive than previously believed, is now part of the prosecutors’ investigation of Rivera’s paid consulting and how the money he received from Venezuela – at least $ 15 million of the promised $ 50 million – was spent, the two people said.

While there is no evidence that Sessions took advantage of Rivera’s consulting contract, the two men’s efforts overlapped, with the same interlocutors, and sometimes seemed on par.

In contrast to the current US ‘maximum pressure’ campaign to remove Maduro, there was a brief window after Trump’s election in 2016, when the socialist leader was desperate for U.S. investment and recovery relations with Washington.

Trump’s alleged softness against Russia – Venezuela’s best ally – urged Caracas to quickly launch an influence campaign, including a funnel through Citgo, PDVSA’s Houston-based subsidiary, $ 500,000 to Trump’s inaugural commission, with contributions from corporate giants Verizon, Pepsi and Wal-Mart.

Sessions were considered a major target of Venezuela’s charm offensive due to his close ties to Tillerson – both men have held leadership positions in the Boy Scouts of America – and ties to the U.S. oil industry. Exxon is one of the companies headquartered in its former Dallas district.

The five-sentence message sent to Sessions’ personal email address, which begins with the word “eagle,” is lacking in detail, but refers to previous correspondence, also seen by the AP, in which Exxon General Counsel and Vice President Randall Ebner spoke of a willingness to discuss new matters after the around-the-time settlement of protracted arbitration following the takeover by Venezuela of an oil field managed by Exxon in 2007.

To regain the company at a time when oil production collapsed, Maduro was ready to offer Exxon a concession on the Hugo Chavez Oil Belt, which sits on top of the world’s largest crude reserves, the two people said.

“Thank you for making this meeting possible,” concludes the email to Sessions.

Exxon declined to comment.

But by the time the ink dried up on a $ 259 million payment schedule signed between Exxon and PDVSA on July 31, 2017, relations between the two countries had become more hostile.

The Trump administration began rolling out the first round of sanctions in response to Maduro’s plans to rewrite the constitution and undermine the opposition-controlled Congress.

Sessions plans to return to Congress if he can win an outflow in a tough Republican district near his hometown of Waco in mid-July, other than the seat he held for 11 terms until he was expelled in 2018.

He declined to comment on detailed questions. “The United States Department of State would be your best source for any information about contacts with Venezuela,” said a spokesman.

The State Department declined to comment.

But US officials have been suspicious of Sessions’ activities in Venezuela all along. Sessions had no clear ties to the country apart from writing a letter to the country’s bank regulators in 2004 in support of financier Allen Stanford, a former Sessions donor who was convicted in Texas in 2012 and sentenced to 110 years in prison for running $ 7 billion plus Ponzi scheme.

The State Department played no part in organizing the two-day private trip to Caracas, two U.S. officials said on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive matters. Sessions had asked American diplomats not to accompany him to the Presidential Palace, officials said, although U.S. Embassy staff did see the congressman at a small reception he held in the Caracas mansion of government-affiliated businessman Raul Gorrín afterward. loved.

In 2018, Caroline Booth, the then spokeswoman for Sessions, said that her boss had been working on solving problems in Venezuela for the past year at the request of a friend she had not identified. She said Sessions paid for all of his trips.

At the time, Gorrín was trying to secure a soft exit for Maduro while paying Ballard Partners – the former Trump lobbyist in Florida – to explore expansion opportunities in the US for his TV network Globovision. On the way, he traveled to Washington to discuss the future of Venezuela with U.S. lawmakers and managed to shake his photo with Vice President Mike Pence in Florida.

Gorrín along with now Venezuelan Vice President Delcy Rodriguez, a PDVSA board member, organized Sessions’ visit to Caracas and sent the lobby contract to Rivera’s Interamerican Consulting company, according to the two people familiar with the Maduro outreach. The aim of the contract was to enhance PDVSA’s “long-term reputation” and “reputation” among “prospective stakeholders” in the United States, according to a copy seen by the AP.

Rivera was not an obvious choice to take the lead as he had made a name for himself among the anti-Maduro exiles in Florida who mimicked the anti-communist policies of his friend and one-time Florida Senate housemate Marco Rubio. The $ 50 million three-month contract far exceeded the $ 70,000 a month that Citgo had long paid two established lobbyists, Cornerstone Government Affairs and Vantage Knight, for regulatory work.

Rivera’s ties to the Maduro and Gorrín government have been the target of a criminal investigation for more than a year, according to a U.S. law enforcement officer on condition of anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation.

He was also recently brought to New York Federal Court by the new board of Citgo, appointed by Juan Guaidó, the Congressional leader recognized by the US as the legitimate leader of Venezuela. The lawsuit alleges that he did not describe any work while under contract and only drafted two of the seven promised progress reports. Rivera has said that some of the money he received was destined for Venezuela’s opposition, but so far he has not provided any evidence or explanation to support that claim.

Meanwhile, Gorrín’s efforts came to nothing: a few months after he introduced Sessions to Maduro, he was charged in Miami with federal money laundering charges, including allegations of embezzling $ 200 million from PDVSA on behalf of the president’s step-sons.

Gorrín and Rivera did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

Sessions and Rivera have a history of working together.

As chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, Sessions Rivera assisted for Congress in 2010, despite allegations of domestic violence that nearly derailed his campaign. In 2012, he hosted a fundraising reception in Washington for the freshman congressman.

Rivera’s political career later unraveled amid several election-related controversies, including orchestrating the stealth funding of an unknown democratic candidate to include his main rival in a congressional race in South Florida and a state investigation into whether he had a contract from Hid $ 1 million with a gambling game company. He has never been charged with a crime.

Sessions, the son of the recently deceased former FBI director William Sessions, has also been scandalized. Last year, he got caught up in the investigation into the impeachment activities surrounding Trump’s contacts with Ukraine for writing a letter to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, requesting the resignation of Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch after meeting two associates affiliated with Giuliani with ties to the former Soviet republic.

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Follow AP reporter Joshua Goodman on Twitter: @APjoshgoodman

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Contact AP’s global research team at Investigative@ap.org

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