(translated by Michelle Jennings)
1. The plan against the CICIG
In the last week of February 2017, in a condominium located in Zone 15 of Guatemala City, President Jimmy Morales, Representative Armando Melgar Padilla, Secretaries Alfredo Brito and Carlos Martínez, the Ambassador Marvin Mérida and other cabinet members, gathered together to come up with a plan, “against the co-opting of the justice sector,” by the CICIG (International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala) and the United States Embassy.
One month prior, the Public Ministry, under Thelma Aldana and the CICIG, run by Iván Velázquez, had arrested the President’s son and brother on corruption charges stemming from a 2013 case. They also arrested some of the President’s closest officials, and financiers of his campaign as well. With that, Jimmy Morales’ commitment to fight corruption had ended. Additionally, this ended his relationship with the U.S. Ambassador, Todd Robinson, who the government felt was interfering with the internal affairs of the country, as well as any sympathetic feelings towards the work of the CICIG. The United States, furthermore, was financing a third of the Commission.
Sources present at this meeting showed Nómada a document summarizing the plan in five points:
- 1. “To analyze the actions of Ambassador Todd Robinson and the removal of the same”
- 2. “To continue the work of the CICIG, but change the Commissioner”
- 3. “To remove the leadership of the Public Ministry”
- 4. “To remove the Minister of the Interior and Vice Ministers”
- 5. “To request that the United States Government set up a task force that would accompany the new authorities’ investigation of these identified officials”
The plan consisted of paying lobbyists in the United States. For this they need financers.
The initial meeting in zone 15 was followed by other meetings, with more attendees.
This was the list of who was behind the lobby against Ambassador Robinson and the CICIG:
The head of the alliance of Jimmy Morales was the former presidential candidate Manuel Baldizón, who fled Guatemala after losing the 2015 elections. The link between the two was his son Jorge Baldizón, who was working in the office of then Indiana Governor Mike Pence, who is now the Vice President of the United States.
Some of the most conservative businessmen of the largest corporations in the country joined together to finance this endeavor, including: Juan Maegli Novella and Tom Dougherty Novella, Senior Executives of Cementos Progreso.
The plan came together with the signature of Barnes and Thornburg, one of the most important lobbying agencies in the United States.
2. The businessmen who paid the lobbyists
In the biannual activity report before the Foreign Agents Registration, Barnes and Thornburg, noted that they received two payments from the Coalition of the Congress, on June 8th and 26th in the amounts of $80,000 and $50,000.
A bank transaction certificate that Nómada gained access to matches the date and the amount of this first payment. The account is in the name of Juan Estuardo Maegli Novella, the Co-President of Cementos Progreso.
The Barnes and Thornburg transaction receipts report that the funds were deposited in the account of Craig Burkhardt, the firm’s principal partner, from a Guatemalan account number 00072617-000001.
Maegli and Dougherty Novella, who are cousins, were never accused by the CICIG. Their only link to illicit electoral financing was revealed in 2011 when WikiLeaks made the U.S. Ambassador’s diplomatic cables public. There, the former President Pérez Molina stated that among his financers was the Novella family.
Previously, Maegli Novella’s father, now deceased, was the owner of the estate which served as a center for torture and sexual slavery during the Guatemalan civil war, in Sepur Zarco. His cousin, José Miguel Torrebiarte Novella, also the Director of Cementos Progreso, is accused by the CICIG of being part of the alliance of businessmen who illegally financed Jimmy Morales in 2015.
In addition, a cement project in San Juan Sacatepéquez has left a series of deaths between supporters and opponents of the plant.
To understand why some of these business executives participated in this alliance with politicians against CICIG, Nómada reached out to the Manager of Cementos Progreso and with people close to Juan Maegli and Tom Dougherty requesting interviews, but none agree to be interviewed.
In the meeting’s agenda that Barnes and Thornburg prepared for government officials and businessmen meeting with assistants and staffers of U.S. government officials between July 11th and 19th, the name of Fernando Sáenz appears along with Maegli and the Congressman Jaime Regalado.
The document indicates that members of the alliance were in the White House, the Capitol, the Department of Energy and Commerce, the State Department, and International Republican Institute meeting with people like Mary Fowley, Policy Advisor for President Donald Trump; Andrea Thompson, National Security Advisor for Vice President Mike Pence; and Luis Arreaga, currently serving as the United States Ambassador to Guatemala.
The businessman Sáenz denied that he has ever attended these meetings, that he has ever had conversations with President Jimmy Morales and representatives or that he has any connection with these lobby contracts:
“I did not meet with them. I can speak for the contract that I signed, which has nothing to do with the four representatives nor with Marvin Mérida. This is a personal and private situation, between myself and my lawyers”, he said.
(This contract that Sáenz mentioned will be discussed later in this report)
3. The Ghost Writers in Washington
On April 6, 2017, Marvin Mérida, then Presidential Ambassador for migration in the United States, signed a payment for 12 months of lobbying services for almost one million dollars (US $960,000 Q 7.5 million). This money was going to be used to arrange meetings between officials from both countries, to speak negatively about the administration of Ambassador Robinson, to ask for his removal and to promote bilateral negotiations focused on energy production and clothing trade in the United States.
In the Foreign Agents Registration of the Department of Justice in the United States is the contract and accompanying letter where lawyers Robert Grand, Craig Burkhardt, Eddie Ayoob and Robert Ganim, clarify that although Mérida signed the document they will only provide their services to the Presidency of Guatemala.
Ambassador Mérida only signed this to prevent any ties to Jimmy Morales when it became public, as the lobbies in the U.S. are registered and are publicly accessible.
When the above was revealed, the Presidency of Jimmy Morales attempted to distance itself from Mérida. Jimmy Morales needed to distance himself, but his name and expenses were already recorded in the public records of the U.S. State Department.
“It’s important from the start of this relationship that we have a clear understanding of the client in this agreement. The only client of the firm is the Executive Office of the President of Guatemala.”
This contract was valid for only 20 days, since the government dismissed Ambassador Mérida after the scandal, so the transaction became invalid. However, in a semi-annual report, Barnes and Thornburg reported that on April 7, 2017 they received a payment of $60,000 in part by the Guatemalan government and that on April 22, the firm paid $3,870 to pay for an airplane ticket, hotel and food to hold meetings in the office of the President of Guatemala.
4. Ambassador’s Project
In a confidential memorandum dated April 14, 2017 that Nómada obtained access to, the lawyers Burkhardt, Ayoob, Spooner and Bill Jones outlined the steps to achieve the removal of Todd Robinson and continue with the strategy of Jimmy Morales and his followers to separate the objectives of the lobby into two parts: Ambassador Project and Bilateral Negotiations.
To achieve this they needed meetings in both countries. In that letter, the lawyers of Barnes and Thornburg reported that they already had contact with the State Department and U.S. Senate staffers to inform them of the objections against Ambassador Robinson, and that they had planned to travel to Guatemala between the 22nd and 25th of April last year to meet with businessmen, officials and associations to collect evidence and information against him. The visit did not take place because the contract was canceled that week.
“We will also search for information related to possible replacements. We have made this our top priority. We will place the overwhelming majority of our effort into achieving his timely removal with the goal that any remaining Embassy personnel will stand-down on any implementation of his instructions,” stated in the document.
In the same letter, the lawyers asked for the authority to suggest to the House of Representatives, State Department and the White House that Guatemala desires to have bilateral discussions in Washington between senior Guatemalan and U.S. officials in June or July of 2017, taking place during a conference regarding the security and prosperity of Central America.
“We suggest separate discussions take place between Guatemalan Energy, Trade and Foreign/USAID officials and their U.S. counterparts...Also we request a meeting with Vice President Pence and President Trump in the White House,” it reads.
The lobbyists wanted Jimmy Morales to meet with the then Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, to discuss the appointment of the next U.S. Ambassador in Guatemala, as well as possible agreements in three areas which, according to the lobbyists, Donald Trump wished to explore with Guatemala: external relations, cooperation with USAID (which continually bothers Republicans), trade and energy.
In this confidential document, Barnes and Thornburg say they are capable of carrying out the Ambassador Project and that it will, “raise Guatemala and President Morales to an international level.”
“Also, we believe that this will open a completely different chapter in the operation of the U.S. Ambassador in Guatemala City. All of these activities are central to the scope of our contract with the Office of the President (Morales).”
5. Plan B: “The Four Idiots”
With the dismissal of Ambassador Mérida, the contract became invalid. To continue with US lobbying, four Congressional officials would need to sign a new contract. This new contract, although similar in scope, would this time be more expensive and not include a direct connection to the government.
The reputation of the officials preceded them.
Jaime Regalado (MR, ex PP) who has been accused of having links to drug trafficking in Petén. Fernando Linares Beltranena (PAN) was a lawyer for drug traffickers and lawyer for international adoptions during the Guatemalan civil war, which were later declared illegal. Óscar Quintanilla (AC, former leader) is the son of Carlos Quintanilla, who was linked to dark militaries during the government of Álvaro Colom, was fired for installing microphones to spy on Colom when he was his boss. Óscar Quintanilla is now also the subject of an investigation into security contracts for Transurbano. And the fourth was Julio Lainfiesta (UCN), a party that the U.S. Embassy described in the past as ‘narco’ ideology.
The four formed a part of the legislative alliance of Jimmy Morales’ party, FCN. Under the name Congress Coalition, they signed a contract on May 26th, one month after the first contract became invalid.
In 2017, when Ambassador Robinson was asked his opinion about this lobby contract, he responded with a statement that went down in history: “There are four idiots in Congress. I worked closely with many of the members of Congress, but there were some I have no respect for, not as members of Congress nor as authorities of the country.”
Lobbying services began on June 1, 2017, with emails and meeting with government officials in the State Department and the Office of the Vice President of the United States. The first issue they tried to deal with were problems with visas. As of April 2017, the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala withdrew the visa of the Guatemalan official, Linares Beltranena.
The lobbying firm also contacted Senators Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Robert Menéndez, John Shimkus, Cory Gardner and Jeff Flake to set up meetings with the officials Óscar Quintanilla, Jaime Regalado and Julio Lainfiesta.
It appears on the record that on July 13, 2017, the lobbyists met with Congresswoman Norma Torres, who has been a critic of the Morales government and his alliances with people accused of corruption.
One highlight of this report is that on July 19th and 20th the lawyers of the firm met with Viviana Babo and Brandon Yoder, staff members of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, for a confirmation hearing for the next U.S. Ambassador in Guatemala.
At this time, President Jimmy Morales published a “selfie” in his Twitter feed where he appears next to Todd Robinson and officials in his cabinet. The text that accompanied the image: “A successful work tour with excellent support for our country”.
En una exitosa gira de trabajo con excelentes apoyos para nuestro país.
Trabajando unidos por Guatemala ??
— Jimmy Morales (@jimmymoralesgt) June 19, 2017
The platform closest to the organized private sector, Republica.gt, titled the photograph: Together like brothers.
The expensive lobby failed to accelerate the change in Ambassador in the country, and Todd Robinson stayed in his position during the usual three year term. He is now an Advisor for Central American Affairs in the State Department.
However, his allies do claim they influenced the appointment of a friendlier successor. By this time, Donald Trump had already made public his proposal for the next U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala, Luis Arreaga. The Senate confirmed the change on August 3, 2018. Nómada asked for an interview with Ambassador Arreaga to discuss the documents where he appears to have met with businessmen and officials before taking office, but we have not received a response from the Embassy.
6. The Effects of the Lobby
The lobby did have concrete successes.
Under the two contracts, one signed by Marvin Mérida and the other signed by the officials Jaime Regalado, Julio Lainfiesta and Óscar Quintanilla, the lobbyists met with various Republican Senators and their teams.
Two of them were Mike Lee, and members of the staff of Marco Rubio, to ask them if they would investigate the administration of Ambassador Todd Robinson and supervise the work of the CICIG.
Both believed these arguments.
On the May 25, 2018, Senator Lee wrote a press release where he critiqued the work of the CICIG and said their investigations were influenced by Russia to attack three people in the Bitkov family, convicted of using forged documents.
From Guatemala, Betty Marroquín, columnist of the República.gt, broadcasted an audio clip asking people to write letters to the Helsinki Commission (of which Senator Marco Rubio was a part) where they complained about the work of Iván Velásquez, the head of the CICIG.
The communication went further. Mike Lee, closest to Senators Marco Rubio, Roger Wicker and Christopher Smith, requested that the U.S. government retain the $6 million of the 2018 budget funds for the CICIG. They did this for six months and only now have the funds been transferred.
7. The New Lobby
The businessman Fernando Sáenz denied any connection to the payments towards the law firm used to discredit the work of Ambassador Todd Robinson and the CICIG, but he acknowledged that he signed a new contract with Barnes and Thornburg where, “the objectives are different”.
On September 24th, one day after Jimmy Morales gave his speech at the 73rd UN General Assembly, Craig Burkhardt of Barnes and Thornburg signed a new contract linking the Guatemalan and U.S. governments. This time with the Batab Coalition, where Fernando Sáenz is currently the President. Batab is a Mayan word meaning chief.
According to the documents on the Foreign Agents Registration page, the firm was contracted to create a strategic plan and facilitate meetings between the members of the Batab Coalition, officials of the Guatemalan government, and representatives of the US Government.
The contract was signed for 6 months, at a price of $480,000 ($80,000 per month). In another form, Barnes and Thornburg report that on September 20th they received $100,000 from the Batab Coalition to pay for their initial services.
Saénz is a public critic of the CICIG and the fight against corruption. He has asked to arrest the magistrates of the Constitutionality Court to whom he calls “traitors” because they stopped Jimmy Morales from preventing Iván Velásquez’s entry into the country. He also praises the qualities of Jimmy Morales and is sympathetic to Donald Trump.
When consulted, he acknowledged that days before he signed the contract he met with the lawyers at Barnes and Thornburg. During that same period, he increased his public critiques against the Commission. On September 19, he made public an image with the phrase: IT’S NOW: #DestroyCICIG. He also called the former Attorney General, Thelma Aldana, an “old fox”.
The Batab Coalition’s lobby contract was signed the same week that Jimmy Morales told the UN that, “in essence, the CICIG has become a threat to peace in Guatemala”.
8. Expensive photographs
This week Jimmy Morales is in the United States to participate in the second Conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America together with Vice President Mike Pence. This is the same conference where the lawyers from Barnes & Thornburg intended to speak negatively about Ambassador Todd Robinson last year.
In the official Twitter feed of the Guatemalan government they have already posted photographs of Jimmy Morales with Vice President Pence standing in an informal meeting.
Presidente @jimmymoralesgt reafirma compromiso con la seguridad en Centroamérica ???? https://t.co/Emjo3I09Pu pic.twitter.com/38hAoGCriG
— Gobierno Guatemala (@GuatemalaGob) October 11, 2018
Lobbying payment documents show that behind each encounter between the two countries there has been investments by groups seeking to end CICIG.
Alfredo Brito, Secretary of Social Communication of the Presidency, told Nómada that he did not participate in the meeting, and he has never done anything to affect the work of the CICIG. In spite of the documents evidenced here, he assured that Jimmy Morales is committed to the fight against corruption.
“I am intrigued that it was mentioned I participated in this meeting. I did not go, and I was not present. I do not know if there have been such meetings. I do not believe that the president has signed a contract, nor do I believe that the president has put his signature on any document to make such a contract. What I can say and affirm is that the president is committed to the fight against corruption. It was never his wish that the CICIG disappear. On the contrary, he has always stated that the CICIG is an entity that will continue and has an expiration date and at this moment the President is advocating for the exchange and transfer of capacities to the justice department in Guatemala.”