Accused of corruption, Latin leader uses mystery money, Florida firms amid impeachment fight

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As the president of Ecuador faced threats of impeachment for alleged corruption, a tiny Miami public relations firm was given a six-figure contract to lobby journalists to publish favorable stories about the embattled leader — not in Ecuador, where his political fortunes were dire, but in British and U.S. media markets, including in Miami, interviews and public records show.

Mysteries abound over the $250,000 PR payment benefiting President Guillermo Lasso, according to a joint investigation by the Miami Herald, the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and Ecuador’s Plan V Magazine. Where did it originate? Why embark on a Florida-based charm offensive if you are struggling to stay afloat politically in Ecuador? Was it money from the Ecuadorian public till diverted to political use, which would be improper — and which Lasso’s press secretary denies? Did a benefactor come to Lasso’s aid? Did the wealthy president, previously linked to tens of millions in South Florida real estate, pick up the tab himself?

If it was the president’s own money, why was it channeled through a second company, a Plantation, Florida-based wealth management firm called Global Research and Asset Management LLC, aka GRAM, which, records show, then hired a second company, Perceptual Advisors, with offices on Brickell.

Lasso, a former CEO of Banco de Guayaquil generally seen as a friend of the United States, has not made himself available for comment.

GRAM is run by Miguel Macias, a former officer of Banco de Guayaquil, Florida corporation records show. GRAM is a two-employee shop with annual revenues of $150,000, according to the company information database Buzzfile. Macias did not respond to questions about the transaction.

A law called the U.S. Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, requires that any company working in the United States on behalf of foreign interests disclose its connections to ensure the U.S. political process is not manipulated by hidden forces.

Perceptual Advisors properly disclosed its Ecuador-related mission, said company co-founder Claudia Gioia, who signed the contract.

Joshua Rosenstein, an expert on FARA law with the firm Sandler Rieff Lamb Rosenstein & Birkenstock, said the filing appears to comply with U.S. disclosure requirements.

“I don’t see anything in the filing that immediately raises a FARA concern,” he said.

There could, however, be issues in Ecuador.

The contract, covering April 5 to May 5, was signed by Macias, as GRAM’s CEO. But it also identifies him as acting on behalf of the Ecuadorian Government’s General Secretariat of Communications. The same document, reviewed by the Herald, names Wendy Reyes, Lasso’s government press secretary, as a contact.

Ecuadorian lawyer Felipe Rodríguez said the contract poses potential legal issues for President Lasso if, in fact, public funds were used to hire the Miami PR firm.

Under normal circumstances, “public funds are meant to be used to safeguard the image of the Executive branch, which is to say to preserve stability,” not the personal reputation of the person who holds the office, Rodríguez said.

Any tinge of inappropriate behavior dissipates if the contract was paid with private funds, Rodríguez added.

Claudia Gioia is the co-founder of Miami-based Perceptual Advisors.
Claudia Gioia is the co-founder of Miami-based Perceptual Advisors.

According to the FARA filing, Perceptual Advisors contacted several news outlets hoping to pitch interviews with Lasso. In the document, Gioia reported that either emails or text messages were sent to journalists working for the Financial Times, the Associate Press, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, the Miami Herald, BBC Mundo and the Washington Post, among others.

There was no record of Macias filing a separate FARA submission.

In an email sent to Plan V, Wendy Reyes, Lasso’s press secretary, distanced herself and the Ecuadorian government from the PR blitz.

“I have not signed any public relations contract on behalf of the government’s General Secretariat of Communication… nor are there any public funds allocated for it,” Reyes wrote.

The PR efforts were engineered as opposition forces in Ecuador were gearing up efforts to impeach Lasso, under alleged corruption charges that the president denied. Two weeks ago, just as adversaries appeared to gather sufficient support, Lasso invoked the “mutual death” constitutional provision that dissolved the National Assembly and called for immediate general elections, in essence shortening by around half his own four-year term.

The motive for spending heavily on good press in the United States is not really obvious. Lasso’s administration is generally seen in Washington as a trustworthy, albeit small, ally in a region that during the past few years has turned to leftist presidents who harshly criticize the United States.

Yet, Ecuador has had a hard time in reaching the U.S. trade agreement it has been seeking amid anti-free-trade sentiments prevalent in Congress. The deal would help the Andean country offset its disadvantage compared to nations in the Pacific rim that enjoy free trade deals with the United States.

The FARA filing is not the first time that Macias has been publicly linked to the Ecuadorian president.

In 2017, a report published by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a Washington-based think tank, described him as an officer of a series of Florida shell companies connected to Lasso that held ownership in more than 140 South Florida properties, most of them condos. Total value: more than $30 million.

On May 16, 2023, Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso speaks during a session of the National Assembly in which opposition deputies were trying to start impeachment proceedings against him.
On May 16, 2023, Ecuadorian President Guillermo Lasso speaks during a session of the National Assembly in which opposition deputies were trying to start impeachment proceedings against him.

Lasso’s son, also named Guillermo, was originally on the shell companies’ paperwork but he was replaced by Macias and former Banco de Guayaquil official Euvenia Touriz, the report said. That switch came amid efforts in Ecuador, approved via public referendum, to bar politicians from having bank accounts or companies in Florida and similar havens where money can be stashed in real estate.

But Macias and Touriz continued to open additional holding companies, always concealing the so-called beneficial — or true — owner, the report said.

The real estate holdings linked to Lasso were also highlighted by the Argentine newspaper Pagina 12, which said the president took advantage of the real estate meltdown during the Great Recession to scoop up properties.

Plan V reporter Susana Morán and researcher Cristobal Lamar-Salas contributed to this story.