Americas, Energy, New in Lobbying

Venezuela oil lobbyists continued to rake in millions after US turned Citgo over to the opposition

Many of the same firms that lobbied for Venezuela’s national oil company on behalf of socialist President Nicolas Maduro continued to make a killing after the Donald Trump administration switched control of its US operations over to the opposition, newly disclosed lobbying documents show.

Before Trump recognized Juan Guaido as the legitimate leader of the country in January 2019, the US subsidiary of Venezuela’s state-owned oil and gas company Petroleos de Venezuela (PDVSA) and its Houston refiner Citgo spent more than $20 million successfully lobbying the US administration not to sanction Citgo. Lobbying firms on the campaign included Avenue Strategies, a firm co-founded by Trump’s first campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski and senior 2016 campaign adviser Barry Bennett, and Democratic strategist Manuel Ortiz‘s firm VantageKnight.

Now a batch of new filings with the US Department of Justice under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) reveal new details about the shift in lobbying focus since Citgo changed hands — and which firms benefited. The filing comes as the FARA unit has been ramping up enforcement of the lobbying disclosure law and advising more and more firms to disclose past engagements for foreign work.

The documents cover the period between February 2019 and April 2020 and were filed in tandem by PDV Holding, Inc., Citgo Holding Inc. and the Citgo Petroleum Company of Houston, New York law firm Willkie Farr & Gallagher, and VantageKnight and Avenue Strategies. They all list the Ad Hoc Board of Petroleos de Venezuela, S.A., which Guaido established in April 2019, as the foreign beneficiary of their efforts.

The Maduro government has accused the United States of trying to steal Citgo, the cash-strapped nation’s most valuable asset abroad.

“The United States today has decided to follow the path of stealing Citgo from Venezuela,” Maduro declared in a Jan. 28, 2019 televised broadcast. “PDVSA will take legal, political, operational and commercial measures to defend Venezuela’s interests in the United States.”

According to the filings, lobbying on behalf of the ad hoc board focused largely on getting the Trump administration to shield Citgo from its creditors. The Guaido administration scored a major victory in October 2019 when the US Treasury Department blocked holders of PDVSA bonds from seizing their collateral as a key debt payment came due.

In their new lobbying disclosures, PDV and Citgo write that they hoped to amend US sanctions to no longer exempt the Maduro regime’s creditors “in order to avoid harm to Citgo, including a potentially costly and destabilizing control contest involving years of litigation, and US foreign policy objectives. One of those US foreign policy objectives was promoting the transition of control over PDVSA from the Maduro regime to the Guaido Government, and the Citgo entities explained why the policy objectives they favored would also promote that particular U.S. foreign policy objective.”

According to the documents, CITGO paid more $7.5 million to a half-dozen law, lobbying and public relations firms during the period:

  • New York law firm Wilkie Farr & Gallagher was paid around $4 million for help with trade sanctions compliance, anti-corruption and anti-money laundering compliance, commercial transactions and litigation challenging the validity Citgo entities’ new boards of directors (Firm partners Michael Gottlieb and Rachel Strickland were registered on the account);
  • VantageKnight was paid $1.95 million for congressional lobbying (the firm represented Citgo from August 2016 until May 2020);
  • Cornerstone Government Affairs received $1.5 million to lobby Congress, the White House and the Department of Energy (Cornerstone represented Citgo from May 2014 to May 2020);
  • Washington crisis communications firm Levick Strategic Communications was paid $585,000;
  • Communications firm the High Lantern Group, which is headquartered in New York but has a Washington office, received $260,000.

In addition, VantageKnight disclosed paying Avenue Strategies $460,000 as a subcontractor during the period.

Records show that Avenue Strategies’ Bennett met on Aug. 29, 2019 with then-Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, Assistant Secretary of State for Energy Resources Frank Fannon and Kenneth Vincent, then the chief of staff of the Office of Fossil Energy at the Energy Department, to discuss Citgo. He also met with State Department Energy Officer for Latin America and the Caribbean Mark Saaverda on Sept. 24 to discuss the Gerd Knutsen, an oil tanker filled with 960,000 barrels of crude oil that was caught in the dispute over control of Citgo for more than a year.


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Meanwhile VantageKnight disclosed calls with the offices of numerous Democrats in Congress as well as a Sept. 11, 2019 meeting with Rep. Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), then the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Senate Foreign Relations Committee members Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) and Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) to discuss Citgo’s new CEO, Carlos Jorda. Ortiz was registered to lobby on the account along with Olga DeMetri.

Citgo and PDV also did their own lobbying, with Citgo Chairwoman Luisa Palacios meeting with more than a dozen US officials in the summer of 2019 including Commerce Secretary Ross, Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Bill Cassidy (R-La.), Rep. Clay Higgins (R-La.) and several Treasury, State and Energy department officials to discuss Citgo’s creditors as well as the case of six former Citgo executives who were detained in Venezuela in 2017 and only released to house arrest last week. Jorda accompanied her in many of the meetings and met separately with Sen. Murphy on Sept. 12, 2019.

After the Treasury Department stepped in to protect Citgo from its bondholders, Jorda wrote letters to several lawmakers to thank them for their intervention. According to newly disclosed lobbying filings, these include Reps. Engel, Albio Sires (D-N.J.), Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-Fla.), Donna Shalala (D-Fla.), Debbie Mucarsel-Powel (D-Fla.) and Mario Diaz-Balart (R-Fla.).

“Your leadership was critical in making this a reality, and we sincerely appreciate everything you did leading up to this important decision,” Jorda wrote. “Rest assured, the people of CITGO will continue working to ensure our company will remain an important part of America’s energy industry as it has for more than 100 years. That is our commitment.”