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AP exclusive: Law firm dumps Maduro official amid outcry

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro speaks to supporters from a balcony at Miraflores presidential palace during a rally marking the anniversary of the coup that overthrew dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez in 1958, in Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Matias Delacroix)
Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro speaks to supporters from a balcony at Miraflores presidential palace during a rally marking the anniversary of the coup that overthrew dictator Marcos Perez Jimenez in 1958, in Caracas, Venezuela, Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Matias Delacroix) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

BOGOTA – A U.S. law firm that was hired for $12.5 million by a top official in Nicolás Maduro's government has decided to dump the controversial Venezuelan client amid a major outcry by critics who accused it of carrying water for a socialist “dictator,” The Associated Press has learned.

The AP reported Monday that Foley & Lardner had agreed to represent Maduro’s Inspector General Reinaldo Muñoz. Filings with the Justice Department showed Foley & Lardner, which has offices in Washington, in turn paid $2 million to hire influential lobbyist Robert Stryk to help its client ease U.S. sanctions on Maduro’s government and engage the Trump administration in direct talks.

Florida Republican Sen. Rick Scott immediately decried the move, saying in a letter to the firm that he would urge his Senate colleagues to follow his lead and boycott the firm until it cut ties with the “dangerous dictator."

Three people familiar with the matter said Thursday that Foley was withdrawing from the case. They spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter.

Foley’s communications director, Dan Farrell, declined to comment.

“I hope the last few days will serve as a lesson to any other lobbying firms, consultants or organizations that if you support Maduro and his gang of thugs I won’t stay quiet,” Scott said in an emailed statement to AP.

A senior Venezuelan government official said the reversal wouldn’t discourage the Maduro government from seeking honest dialogue with the Trump administration. The official spoke to AP on condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

The outreach by Maduro's government came as criticism has also been directed at U.S. support for opposition leader Juan Guaidó, whom the U.S. and about 60 other nations recognize as Venezuela’s rightful president.

A year into the U.S.-backed campaign to oust Maduro, the embattled leader has successfully beaten back a coup attempt, mass protests and punishing U.S. sanctions that have cut off his government’s access to Western banks.

Randy Brinson, a conservative activist from Alabama who has teamed up recently with an evangelical Venezuelan pastor to deliver humanitarian aid to the country, said regular Venezuelans would suffer the consequences of possible dialogue with Maduro being stymied.

“It is unfortunate that the outreach has become so politicized,” said Brinson.

Brinson said he met with Muñoz on two occasions recently and considers him an “invaluable” ally in the humanitarian relief effort brokered between the Maduro government and pastor Javier Bertucci, a former presidential candidate.

Stryk, a winemaker and former Republican aide who unsuccessfully ran for mayor of Yountville, California, is one of the top lobbyists in Trump’s Washington.

A former unpaid Trump campaign adviser on the West Coast, his firm, Sonoran Policy Group, had no reported lobbying from 2013 to 2016 but has billed more than $10.5 million to foreign clients since the start of 2017.

Like Venezuela, many of the clients have bruised reputations in Washington or are under U.S. sanctions, such as the governments of Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Saudi Arabia’s Ministry of Interior, which signed a $5.4 million contract in May 2017.

Muñoz’s contract with Foley, for a flat fee of $12.5 million, extended until May 10. Stryk’s share of the deal, as a consultant, was $2 million.

Foley said in its filing that it received slightly more than $3 million in initial payments on behalf of Muñoz from what appear to be two Hong Kong-registered companies. Its work was also to include discussions with officials at the U.S. Treasury Department and other U.S. agencies regarding sanctions against the Maduro government.