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Taiwan Pays Guatemala $900K to Lobby DC01/18 06:19

   

   MIAMI (AP) -- Guatemala has hired for $900,000 a major supporter of former 
President Donald Trump to seek influence with U.S. officials in an unusual 
lobbying contract paid for by its ally Taiwan, foreign lobby records show.

   Ballard Partners registered as a foreign agent with the U.S. Justice 
Department on Jan. 13, according to filings made public over the weekend. The 
contract, dated Jan. 12, was signed by Alfonso Quinonez, Guatemala's ambassador 
to the U.S., and Brian Ballard, president of the namesake lobbying firm and a 
longtime Trump ally.

   It's not clear how hiring Ballard, who years before Trump ran for the White 
House worked for him as a lobbyist in Florida, will be able to help Guatemalan 
President Alejandro Giammattei draw closer to the Democratic administration of 
President Joe Biden, which has repeatedly expressed concerns about corruption 
in the Central American nation.

   On Sunday, the U.S. State Department blasted Giammattei's government for 
seeking to lift the immunity from prosecution of a judge who has won high 
honors in Washington for exposing bribery in Guatemala.

   "This action against an internationally recognized independent judge weakens 
a vital pillar of Guatemala's democracy and judicial system," spokesman Ned 
Price said in a statement.

   In its registration, Ballard only said it would provide "strategic 
consulting and advocacy services" related to Guatemala's interactions with the 
U.S. government and U.S. officials.

   Justin Sayfie, a partner in Ballard's Washington office, declined to comment 
further. But he said the request for Taiwan to assume responsibility for 
payment was not the firm's idea.

   "It's unusual for one government to be paying the fees for lobbying for 
another government," said Robert Kelner, an attorney specializing in compliance 
with foreign lobbying laws for Covington & Burling. "It's not illegal. But it 
does raise a question of whether the government that pays also needs to be 
listed by the lobbying firm as a foreign principal."

   Guatemala in a statement thanked Taiwan for "the support that allows us to 
strengthen our positioning in the U.S." It said the one year contract with 
Ballard, for which it is paying $75,000 a month, will focus on strategic 
communication, investor outreach and promoting tourism.

   Guatemala is one of only 13 mostly small, developing countries that still 
have full diplomatic relations with Taiwan, which split from mainland 
Communist-run China amid civil war in 1949.

   Responding to questions from The Associated Press, Taiwanese Foreign 
Ministry spokesperson Joanne Ou on Tuesday said the arrangement followed the 
principle of "mutual assistance and mutual benefit to promote pragmatic 
diplomacy," based on the needs of governments friendly to Taiwan.

   Ou said the assistance complied with U.S. law and was endorsed by both 
Guatemala's government and its political opposition.

   "In the future, the two countries will continue to promote various programs 
beneficial to their nations and peoples on the basis of the existing good 
cooperation," Ou said in an emailed statement.

   Taiwan in the past has donated fleets of buses, agricultural equipment and 
other high-profile gifts to its allies. But it's been unable to compete with 
China, which considers Taiwan a breakaway territory and has aggressively worked 
to isolate it on the world stage.

   Recently, Beijing secured diplomatic recognition from Guatemala's neighbors 
Nicaragua and El Salvador. Honduras' new president, Xiomara Castro, as a 
candidate also threatened to open ties to Beijing but but has since backtracked 
on the idea.

   Giammattei, a law and order conservative, managed to bypass criticism in 
Washington and forge a productive relationship with the Trump administration by 
yielding to the White House's pressure to embrace an asylum agreement 
negotiated by his predecessor that he opposed when he ran for the presidency in 
2019.

   But he's struggled to build close ties to the Biden administration, which 
has sought to undo Trump's immigration policies and taken a harsher look at 
corruption and rule of law issues in the so-called "Norther Triangle" nations 
of Central America.

   Biden didn't invite Giammattei to his Democracy summit last year and in June 
Vice President Kamala Harris, in a visit to Guatemala, described having a very 
frank conversation with the Guatemalan leader about the importance of 
maintaining an independent judiciary.

   The shift toward a less independent justice system began before Giammattei 
took office but has continued on his watch.

   Ballard will manage the account along with two associates with extensive 
ties to the Republican Party: Jose Diaz, a former Florida state representative 
who is a managing partner of Ballard's office in Miami; and Sayfie, a one time 
adviser to former Florida Governor Jeb Bush who also headed the president's 
commission on White House Fellowships during the Trump administration. A third 
associate representing Guatemala, John O'Hanlon, is a longtime Democrat.

   Ballard amassed dozens of foreign and domestic lobbying clients during the 
Trump presidency -- including Qatar, the Dominican Republic and Zimbabwe -- 
when he was described by Politico as "The Most Powerful Lobbyist in Trump's 
Washington."

   More recently, it has added a number of influential Democratic fundraisers 
and named former Congressman Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat, as managing 
partner of its Washington office to bolster its credentials with the Biden 
White House.

   Despite losing diplomatic allies to China, Taiwan has maintained robust ties 
with the U.S. and most other major nations. European politicians have visited 
the island in defiance of threats of retaliation from Beijing, and Taiwan has 
extended economic aid to Lithuania after China imposed an import ban on the 
Baltic nation for allowing Taiwan to open a representative office there under 
its own name.

 
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