CARACAS (Reuters) - Venezuelan First Lady Cilia Flores is so well-known for helping relatives get government jobs that the arrest of two of her nephews on U.S. drug charges has spawned a joke in opposition circles: "Not all of her family can work in the legislature."
U.S. authorities on Thursday indicted Franqui Francisco Flores de Freitas and Efrain Antonio Campo Flores on cocaine trafficking charges, an embarrassment to President Nicolas Maduro ahead of key legislative elections next month.
The news has brought renewed limelight to Flores, 62, feted by supporters as the "First Combatant" but accused by critics of creating an extensive network of relatives in Venezuela's public administration.
Pastora Medina, who was a legislator when Flores was president of Congress, said she was not surprised to hear the first lady's family had drawn her into controversy.
"She had her whole family working in the assembly," said Medina, who filed complaints at various government agencies in 2008 accusing Flores of violating hiring protocols.
"Her family members hadn't completed the required exams but they got jobs anyway: cousins, nephews, brothers."
Reuters was unable to obtain comment from Flores this week. She declined to answer reporters' questions while accompanying Maduro in Geneva on Thursday.
In the past, Flores has not disputed accounts of her family members working in government, although she dismissed suggestions of nepotism as an opposition campaign.
"I'm proud that they are my family and I will defend them in this National Assembly as workers," Flores said in 2008 when asked about relatives attaining positions.
A union leader representing legislative workers in 2008 said more than 40 people working at the National Assembly were relatives of Flores. In 2013, opposition party Popular Will called on the chief prosecutor to investigate the large numbers of her family members working in the legislature.
In some circles, the Assembly was nicknamed "the garden," a play on her last name, which means "flowers" in Spanish.
The two nephews facing trial in New York were largely unknown to the Venezuelan public until their arrest this week.
More frequently discussed figures include Bladimir Flores, former head of security for the legislature who now serves as chief of the investigative police, and Carlos Malpica, the national treasurer and chief financial officer at state oil company PDVSA [PDVSA.UL], who are reported to be her brother and her nephew.
Other family members have held top posts at a state infrastructure financing agency and the national comptroller's office, according to local media reports.
A law graduate from the private Santa Maria University in Caracas, Flores worked in the 1990s on the legal defense team of socialist leader Hugo Chavez and helped secure his release from prison after he led a failed coup.
Chavez later went on to be elected president and led the country for 14 years until his death from cancer in 2013.
Flores is admired by supporters for becoming the first female president of the national assembly, and is seen as a powerful woman in a society dominated by men.
As Chavez's attorney general, she helped craft the legal arguments in favor of his continuing to run the country from Cuba as he battled cancer.
Recognizable for her burgundy-dyed hair and sometimes shy demeanor, Flores frequently appears in live broadcasts alongside her husband but rarely speaks with him.
She is a candidate in the Dec. 6 legislative elections, running in her home state of Cojedes where she grew up in a rural mud-floored home.
Family association has never been unusual in Venezuelan governments but became more noticeable during Chavez's rule, when top posts went to his cousin, son-in-law and brother. The ruling party backed Chavez's father and later his brother as candidates to govern his home state of Barinas.
Assembly chief Diosdado Cabello's family has also drawn attention. His wife holds the post of tourism minister and his daughter in recent months launched a music career with the help of generous exposure on state media.
Like a number of high-ranking Venezuelan officials, Flores has her own weekly show on state television. Now also the butt of opposition jokes since her nephews' arrest, the program is called "With Cilia and Her Family."
Reporting by Brian Ellsworth; Editing by Kieran Murray and David Gregorio