Venezuela's Maduro taps DC firm to fight US sanctions

JOSHUA GOODMAN
FILE - In this June 23, 2010 file photo, international lawyer Robert Amsterdam speaks during a press conference in Tokyo. On Friday, Feb. 21, 2020, Amsterdam defended the decision of Amsterdam & Partners to represent Nicolas Maduro's Inspector General Reinaldo Muñoz, brushing aside calls from Florida Republican Sen. Rick Scott and others for lawyers to stay far away from Maduro’s “brutal regime.” (AP Photo/Shizuo Kambayashi, File)

MIAMI (AP) — A top official for Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro's government has hired a Washington law firm that also represents Turkey, taking over from another legal team that backed out last month following an outcry from critics who accused it of collaborating with a repressive regime.

Lawyer Bob Amsterdam declined to comment on the nature of work for Maduro’s Inspector General Reinaldo Muñoz, other than saying it would focus on sanctions and human rights issues. He said Friday that the same U.S. sanctions on the Maduro government put strict limits on what he can say and do on behalf of his client.

But he vigorously defended the decision of Amsterdam & Partners to represent Muñoz, brushing aside calls from Florida Republican Sen. Rick Scott and others for lawyers to stay far away from Maduro’s “brutal regime.”

“We aren’t going to bend to the political dictates of Florida,” Amsterdam said. “But I don’t like it when people are denied representation.”

This is the Maduro government's second attempt in less than a month to find a lobbyist who will go head to head with the Trump administration in pushing for dialogue and an end to sanctions.

The previous firm, Foley & Lardner, backed out of a $12.5 million, five-month contract after Scott in a letter urged his Senate colleagues to boycott the firm. In a filing with the U.S. Justice Department on Friday, Foley said it had transferred to Amsterdam & Partners all funds - a little more than $1 million - it has received from its client.

Foley had hired influential lobbyist Robert Stryk as part of its legal team, but it wasn't clear if the former congressional aide whose business has boomed under the Trump administration would also work with Amsterdam.

When contacted Friday, Scott reiterated that he would not work with anyone who represents Muñoz or Venezuela.

"Senator Scott will not stand for this," his office said in a statement. “He will urge every one of his colleagues to stand with him against anyone who willingly represents a dangerous dictator.”

Foley & Lardner had agreed to represent Muñoz and in turn hired influential lobbyist Robert Stryk, but faced steep criticism from Maduro critics.

Amsterdam, a Canadian lawyer, heads a law firm with offices in Washington and London. In the past, it has represented a mix of repressive governments hostile to the U.S. as well as clients persecuted by authoritarian governments.

Since 2015, he's assisted Turkey in seeking the extradition of a U.S.-based cleric and political enemy of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Turkey's government is a staunch economic and political ally of Maduro.

Amsterdam has also represented exiled Russian businessman Mikhail Khodorkovsky, for which he said he was briefly arrested in Moscow by authorities loyal to President Vladimir Putin on the night the billionaire was sentenced to eight years in prison. He also represented former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra.

A decade ago, he represented Venezuelan banker Eligio Cedeño, who had been accused of helping businessmen defraud the government of millions of dollars. Once freed on bail, he immediately fled to the U.S., where he remains in exile. In retaliation, then-President Hugo Chávez jailed the judge who signed his release.

Trump has reiterated his support for Juan Guaidó, the opposition leader recognized by nearly 60 nations as Venezuela’s rightful leader, recently meeting with him in Washington and inviting him to the State of the Union address.

But the opposition has struggled to revive momentum and draw supporters to the streets as Maduro maintains his grip on power. Several attempts at dialogue, including one last year sponsored by Norway, have fizzled.

Meanwhile, the U.S. continues to pursue a strategy of economic pressure, hitting Russian-controlled Rosneft Trading S.A. and its president, Didier Casimiro, with aggressive financial measures designed to cut Maduro off from a lifeline.

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