MIAMI (AP) — Guatemala has hired a top ally of former President Donald Trump for $900,000 to seek influence with U.S. authorities in an unusual lobbying contract paid for by its ally Taiwan, according to official records.
Ballad Partners registered as a foreign agent with the US Department of Justice on January 13, according to new documents released over the weekend. The contract, dated January 12, was signed by Alfonso Quiñónez, Guatemala’s ambassador to the United States, and Brian Ballard, president of the lobbying firm of the same name and a longtime Trump ally.
Responding to questions from The Associated Press, Taiwanese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Joanne Ou said the deal follows the principle of “mutual assistance and mutual benefits to foster pragmatic diplomacy” based on the needs of governments sympathetic to Taiwan.
It was unclear how hiring Ballard, who worked for Trump as a Florida lobbyist years before the businessman ran for president, would help Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei get closer to the current US president’s Democratic administration. Joe Biden, who has repeatedly expressed his concern about corruption in the Central American country.
The US State Department on Sunday criticized the Giammattei government for trying to strip the immunity of a judge who has been recognized in Washington for exposing bribery cases in Guatemala.
“This action against an internationally recognized independent judge undermines a fundamental pillar of Guatemala’s democracy and judicial system,” spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
In his registration, Ballard only said that he would provide “strategic consulting and defense services” related to the interaction between Guatemala and the US government and authorities.
Justin Sayfie, a partner in Ballard’s Washington office, declined to comment further. But he pointed out that asking Taiwan to take the payment had not been the firm’s idea.
“It is unusual for one government to pay lobbying fees for another government,” said Robert Kelner, foreign lobbying enforcement attorney for Covington & Burling. “It is not illegal. But it does raise a question of whether the paying government should also be listed by the lobbying firm as a primary foreigner.”
In a statement, Guatemala thanked Taiwan for “the support that allows us to strengthen our position in the United States.” The one-year contract with Ballard, for which he pays $75,000 a month, will focus on strategic communication, contact with investors and promotion of tourism, he added.
Guatemala is one of just 13 mostly small, developing countries that have full diplomatic relations with Taiwan, split from mainland China during the 1949 civil war.
In the past, Taiwan has donated fleets of buses, farm equipment and other colorful gifts to its allies. But it has been unable to compete with China, which regards Taiwan as rogue territory and has worked aggressively to isolate it from the international arena.
Beijing recently consolidated its diplomatic relations with Guatemala’s neighbors Nicaragua and El Salvador. The new president of Honduras, Xiomara Castro, also considered closer ties with Beijing during the campaign, but has since backed down.
Giammattei, a conservative who campaigned on security, managed to fend off criticism in Washington and forge a good relationship with the Trump administration by bowing to pressure from the White House and accepting an asylum deal brokered by his predecessor to whom had opposed when he ran for president in 2019.
However, he has had trouble approaching the Biden administration, which is trying to dismantle Trump’s immigration strategy and has a tougher stance on issues of corruption and rule of law in the nations of the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America.
Biden did not invite Giammattei to his democracy summit last year, and Vice President Kamala Harris said during a visit to Guatemala last June that she had had a very frank conversation with the Guatemalan president about the importance of maintaining an independent judiciary. .
The erosion of judicial independence in Guatemala began before Giammatei took office, but has continued during his tenure.
Ballard will manage the account along with two associates with GOP contacts: Jose Diaz, a former Florida state representative who is managing director of Ballard’s Miami office, and Sayfie, who was an adviser to former Florida Governor Jeb Bush and led a commission of a White House leadership program during the Trump administration. A third associate who will represent Guatemala, John O’Hanlon, is a veteran Democrat.
Ballard won dozens of domestic and international lobbying clients during the Trump administration, including Qatar, the Dominican Republic and Zimbabwe, when Politico described him as “The most powerful lobbyist in Trump’s Washington.”
He has recently added several influential Democratic fundraisers to his lobby and named former Congressman Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat, managing director of his Washington office to bolster his contacts with the Biden White House.
AP journalist Sonia Pérez D. contributed to this report from Guatemala City.
Joshua Goodman is on Twitter as @APJoshGoodman