For years in the House and in his current bid for Senate, Florida GOP Rep. Connie Mack has attacked Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez with a zeal possibly unmatched in Congress. Chávez, the congressman says, is a “thugocrat” and serious national security threat to the United States.
But the full story of Mack’s anti-Chávez campaign doesn’t end there. In a little-noticed and highly unusual episode, a trio of Mack staffers worked with a secretive nonprofit group whose sole purpose appears to be promoting the congressman’s crusade against Chávez. It’s not clear who provided the $150,000 used to bankroll the group, which apparently did little else than produce a 30-minute documentary that aired on a Houston TV station and consisted almost entirely of a Mack speech bashing Chávez.
The bizarre sequence of events could prove significant given the highly charged politics surrounding Chávez among Florida’s large Latino electorate — which Mack is aggressively courting — and the controversial role of outside groups in the Sunshine State’s political universe. Recent polls have shown Mack in a tight race with Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson, whom Mack has attacked for being soft on Chávez. Mack has shown strong support among different Latino communities, fueled at least in part by his unrelenting criticism of Chávez.
The Committee to Free Venezuela Foundation, a nonprofit group, was founded in Aug. 2010 in Delaware. The organization is “dedicated to educating the American public and policymakers about the dangers posed by Venezuela’s Socialist Dictator Hugo Chávez,” according to its Internal Revenue Service filings.
The tax records show a close interplay between Mack staffers and the foundation. The group’s executive director, Jeff Cohen, was Mack’s chief of staff before leaving his office in June 2009. Cohen returned to Mack’s House staff as the top aide in September, a month before the congressman jumped into the Florida Senate race. Since February, Cohen has been a “part-time employee” in Mack’s House office while also serving as campaign manager for Mack’s Senate campaign.
Cohen, who was working as a political consultant during his stint away from Mack’s office, was paid $35,000 by the Committee to Free Venezuela between January and September of last year, according to his annual financial disclosure form.
Another former Mack aide, Scott Henderson, served as vice president for the anti-Chávez group. Henderson was Mack’s deputy chief of staff from 2005 to 2008.
And Craig Engle, Mack’s campaign treasurer since 2007, was the treasurer-secretary of the Committee to Free Venezuela.
The Committee to Free Venezuela raised $150,000, but as a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization, it was not required to disclose the source of that funding.
The Committee to Free Venezuela ran a 30-minute documentary featuring Mack in May 2011 on KRIV-TV in Houston, which had initially balked at showing it. After the group issued a public statement blasting KRIV for its decision, the TV station backed down and ran the documentary. Houston is home to the U.S. headquarters of Citgo, the Venezuelan government-owned oil giant.
In October 2010, Chávez nationalized a fertilizer plant owned in part by a company controlled by prominent conservative donors David and Charles Koch.
Mack, as chairman of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, has frequently targeted Chávez in both speeches and legislative initiatives.
In May 2011, as the Committee to Free Venezuela was preparing to air its documentary, Mack introduced a resolution calling for Venezuela to be designated a state sponsor of terrorism because of its “support of Iran, Hezbollah and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia.” That legislation has not been marked up by Mack’s own panel.
Mack has also pushed to cut U.S. funding for the Organization of American States because of Venezuela’s role in the international institution. Mack was reacting to “anti-democratic” changes to Venezuela’s constitution implemented by Chávez.
In an interview, Cohen said the Committee to Free Venezuela “came about in large part because of the work I had been involved when I had been Connie’s chief of staff” before his departure from Mack’s office in mid-2009. Chávez and Venezuela “were obviously a major focus of Connie long before he became chairman of the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee.”
“When I was in the private sector, I wanted to take advantage of my keen interest in this and help amplify the education of the threat posed by Hugo Chávez and the danger he presents,” Cohen added.
Cohen said any criticism of the Committee to Free Venezuela as a front to promote Mack — when the Florida Republican had still not entered the Senate race — “is a convenient attack from the liberal left. This was absolutely an effort to raise the level of awareness and help educate people about the threat that Hugo Chávez poses to the Western Hemisphere and his own people.”
Cohen said, “There’s absolutely no question that Connie Mack is the foremost expert on Venezuela in the United States Congress. He gave an excellent speech that people deserved to see.”
Cohen said he was not aware if the committee is still in operation or who is running it. Efforts to contact the Committee to Free Venezuela were unsuccessful, and the organization appears to be dormant.
This article was published on NJ.com and is an extended version of a piece written by John Bresnahan for Politico.com. The article in its original format can be found here.