Obama chooses lawmaker accused of corrupt ties with Chavez to attend funeral

President Obama is sending a lawmaker whose relationship with Hugo Chavez has come under scrutiny in the past to represent the United States at the Venezuelan strongman's funeral on Friday.

Rep. Greg Meeks (D-N.Y.) allegedly met with Chavez in 2006 at the bequest of one of his donors, indicted Ponzi schemer Allen Stanford, to request a criminal probe into a Venezuelan banker who had fallen out with Stanford, The Miami Herald reported in 2009. The banker, Gonzalo Tirado, was charged with tax evasion and theft a year after the meeting with Meeks.

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Meeks said at the time that the trip was aimed at thanking Chavez for providing heating oil for poor Americans through Citgo, a subsidiary of the state-owned Petroleos de Venezuela. Citgo is the primary donor of heating oil to Citizens Energy, a nonprofit organization led by former Rep. Joseph Kennedy (D-Mass.) that provides discounted heating oil to poor families.

“I am honored to be a part of a delegation that will represent the United States at the Funeral of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez on Friday, March 8,” Meeks said in a statement Thursday. “My deepest sympathies go out to the family of President Chavez and the people of Venezuela. Venezuela is an important nation to the Western Hemisphere. I remain committed to building the relationship between our nations. As always, I stand in continued support of the Venezuelan people especially at this time of mourning.”

Stanford's lawyer, Kent Schaffer, acknowledged at the time that his client had talked with Meeks about Tirado -- but denied anything improper happened, The New York Post reported.

"I know from my conversation with Allen Stanford that there's no reason to believe that anything illegal or unethical was asked of the congressman," he said.

"They were having problems with an employee they believed was stealing from the bank . . . and he simply was reporting what had happened. I'm not aware of him making any request for anything in particular."

The good-government group CREW has long accused Meeks of corruption.

“It’s one thing to accept gifts of real estate and cash. It’s a whole new level to reach out to dictators on behalf of any donor – the fact that it was Allen Stanford just makes it creepier,” CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan said at the time the allegations first came to light. “It seems there is nothing Rep. Meeks won’t do for cash. He needs to be held accountable for his actions.”

Former Rep. Bill Delahunt (D-Mass.) will also attend Chavez's funeral, the State Department said. Delahunt met with Chavez in 2005 to strike a deal for discounted winter home heating oil for low-income Massachusetts residents, earning him accusations that he was coddling up to an anti-American dictator.

Chavez died of cancer at a Cuban hospital on Tuesday. Vice President Nicolas Maduro said he had been poisoned and expelled two American officials for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government.

State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland denied those accusations on Thursday.

“This is part of a tired playbook of alleging foreign interference as a political football in internal Venezuelan politics,” Nuland said. “And if we're going to get to a place that we can do better together, this kind of stuff has to stop.”

James Derham, the charge d'affaires at the U.S. embassy in Caracas, will represent the State Department at the funeral. Maduro said Thursday that Chavez's body will be permanently displayed in a special tomb.

Meeks, who was traveling to Venezuela om Thursday, sent The Hill this statement after the funeral:

The Hill’s 3/7/2013 article was a missed opportunity to report on the substantive aspects of the U.S. Delegation to attend the funeral of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and my role as a member of that group.  For years I have worked ardently as a member of the Foreign Affairs committee to deepen and improve U.S. ties to nations in the Hemisphere, and to address the plight of the most marginalized communities.  At the funeral I encountered many leaders in the region that were grateful for U.S. representation on this occasion, and in that brief time they emphasized the desire for greater engagement with our nation on issues of mutual interest.  We discussed trade, security, development, counternarcotics, and so much more.  Regrettably, the Hill apparently missed the importance of the delegation to critical foreign policy developments.

This post was updated on March 19 with a statement from Rep. Meeks.