Miami federal magistrate backs ex-Rep. Rivera’s offer to unfreeze assets to pay for a lawyer

When former Miami congressman David Rivera and an associate were charged with acting as unregistered foreign agents for Venezuela, federal prosecutors obtained a judge’s order to collect approximately $24 million in their earnings by freezing their bank accounts, securities and four properties in Florida linked to the alleged crime.

But on their own, U.S. prosecutors have also placed legal foreclosures on eight other Florida and Georgia properties belonging to the two defendants — unrelated to the alleged criminal activity — with a plan to seize them if necessary as “ surrogate assets” after their conviction at trial.

In a groundbreaking decision on Thursday, Magistrate Judge Edwin Torres ruled that prosecutors could not legally withhold pretrial defendants’ surrogate assets by suspending them in Miami-Dade County Court.

In his 23-page ruling, Torres agreed with the defendants that “neither state law nor federal law grants [prosecutors] the power to coerce innocent assets in this way before trial and conviction”. In particular, Torres cited a U.S. Supreme Court case in South Florida that prevents prosecutors from freezing a defendant’s surrogate assets before trial when they are needed to hire counsel, noting that “it is the government which stubbornly does not understand” the protection of this law. under the Constitution.

If Torres’ decision is accepted by U.S. District Judge Darrin Gayles, who was assigned the high-profile case, it would pave the way for Rivera and political consultant Esther Nuhfer to sell some Florida and New York real estate properties. Georgia to hire their attorneys on a permanent basis. base and pay them legal fees.

Due to the dispute, Rivera and Nuhfer, who were arrested in December, were unable to retain two of Miami’s top criminal defense attorneys to represent them, nor were they able to formally plead not guilty. in federal court in Miami. Suddenly, their criminal case, apart from the indictment unsealed in December, is barely started.

“If this decision stands, we will be paid from the sale of the surrogate assets for our legal services and we will continue to defend our clients,” said attorney Edward Shohat, who represents Rivera along with attorneys David Weinstein and Monique Garcia.

Attorney David O. Markus, who represents Nuhfer with his partner Margot Moss, condemned prosecutors’ strategy of targeting defendants’ surrogate assets before trial as “hyper aggressive.”

“This case is a perfect example – trying to lock up assets that have no connection to the alleged offense before clients can even hire a lawyer, forget the conviction,” Markus said. “It was an outrageous and unprecedented cash grab.”

Rivera, 57, a Republican who served one term in Congress a decade ago, posted a statement about the magistrate judge’s decision on Twitter, saying, “The Founding Fathers fully understood the potential dangers of a Department of unchecked “Justice”. “

Assistant U.S. Attorney Harold Schimkat is expected to ask Gayles to reverse Torres’ decision and, if that fails, he could take the case to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta.

An unsealed indictment in December charged Rivera and Nuhfer with conspiracy to commit offenses against the United States, failing to register as foreign agents in connection with their work advising the Venezuelan oil subsidiary, PDV USA, and money laundering.

As Venezuela’s economy slumped in 2017, the country’s state-owned oil company hired Rivera for an expensive public relations campaign to support Venezuelan business in the United States and prevent U.S. sanctions. Within months, Rivera’s firm, Interamerican Consulting, raised $20 million from Venezuela’s U.S. affiliate, PDV USA, but its $50 million contract with the former politician came to an abrupt end when he was accused of doing little work, according to a lawsuit in New York. which was filed prior to the federal indictment in Miami.

Court documents in the civil and criminal cases revealed that Rivera diverted more than half of his PDV USA revenue – $13 million – to three Miami contractors who allegedly provided “international strategic consulting services” to Venezuelan society. The three beneficiaries of the proceeds were his Venezuelan lawyer, Raul Gorrin, known as a Caracas television mogul with political connections, Rivera’s associate Nuhfer, and a formerly convicted drug trafficker, Hugo Perera. Both Perera and Gorrin owned homes on the exclusive Fisher Island.

In a new court filing, Rivera and his lawyers asked District Judge Gayles to let him consult Gorrin in Venezuela, saying he could both help him with his unregistered foreign agent case and in the related civil commercial dispute in New York. . Rivera says he hired Gorrin as a lawyer in 2017, but U.S. authorities allege Gorrin was actually a subcontractor under Rivera’s high-paying consultancy deal with Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, PDVSA — the contract that is central to the criminal case against Rivera.

Gorrin, who is not charged in the Rivera case, was indicted by a Miami federal grand jury on foreign bribery and money laundering charges in 2018. In court documents, prosecutors describe Gorrin as a ” fugitive” from justice.

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