Miami congressional candidate Carlos Curbelo until recently represented two wealthy brothers convicted in Ecuador of embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars, the Republican acknowledged Friday.
The family of Roberto and William Isaías, who live in Miami, hired Curbelo and his government and public relations firm to try to turn public opinion against the Ecuadorean government, according to Curbelo.
“Our main goal was to disseminate information about the government of Ecuador’s human-rights violations, lack of due process and ties to other rogue regimes,” he said. He added that he and his firm, Capitol Gains, represented the family for three years, “until a few months ago.”
Curbelo confirmed the relationship to the Miami Herald after being asked about it in an interview taped earlier Friday with Herald news partner WFOR-CBS4. The interview will air at 8 a.m. Sunday on Facing South Florida with Jim DeFede.
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The Herald had learned about the relationship from Curbelo’s opponent, Miami Democratic Rep. Joe Garcia, who recalled running into Roberto Isaías at a Capitol Hill office building last year while Isaías made the rounds with Curbelo to offices of members of Congress.
Curbelo “was at the Longworth cafeteria with Roberto Isaías, and Roberto said, ‘Carlos works for me,’” Garcia said. “I get Roberto Isaías meetings; he’s a friend of mine. But when Curbelo works for Roberto Isaías and he gets him a meeting with [House Intelligence Committee Chairman] Mike Rogers, that’s a violation of federal law.”
Then, he added a touch of sarcasm: “Oh, I forgot: He’s not a lobbyist. He’s a tour guide.”
Garcia has received tens of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from Isaías relatives. The brothers are prohibited from donating because they aren’t U.S. residents.
The Democrat, along with other members of Congress from both political parties, including some from Florida, has tried to help the brothers on immigration matters. Garcia told The New York Times earlier this year that he made a phone call on their behalf, which he called routine.
Curbelo never registered as a lobbyist for the Isaías family — or anyone else — in Washington, D.C. He argued he didn’t have to because, though he set up and attended meetings for the brothers with members of Congress, “they were just sharing information.”
“When somebody’s lobbying, they’re going to request something from someone,” Curbelo said. “There was no lobbying involved.”
While the Isaías brothers may not have been advocating for or against any specific legislation, they have had official business pending with the federal government. Ecuador repeatedly asked for the fugitives’ extradition after their 2012 conviction in absentia of embezzling more than $660million during the South American country’s 1999 banking crisis.
The brothers have long said they were scapegoated for the financial crisis, a position that Curbelo reiterated.
“The Isaías family has been persecuted by the government of [Rafael] Correa since 2007,” Curbelo said.
The Obama administration rejected an extradition request in 2013. Relatives of the two men donated tens of thousands of dollars to reelect the president; his administration has denied that the contributions had any influence on its decision.
It’s unclear whether any meetings Curbelo arranged took place before or after the extradition was denied.
Attorney Joe Sandler, who specializes in campaign finance, election and lobbying regulation law and has advised the Garcia campaign, said it’s difficult for Curbelo to argue he wasn’t lobbying if the Isaías family had an interest in a government decision.
“If you’re communicating in a way that you’re making your position known about some kind of action that you want, it counts,” said Sandler, who works in the Washington law firm Sandler Reiff Lamb, which also represents the Florida Democratic Party.
To qualify as a lobbyist, an agent must also spend a certain amount of time working for a client and receive a certain minimum payment. Curbelo wouldn’t say how much he was paid by the family — nor would he be required to even if he had disclosed it as a client.
Because the Isaías brothers don’t have green cards, Curbelo may also have had to register under a federal law that requires disclosure by certain agents of foreigners, Sandler said.
Garcia said Curbelo helped Roberto Isaías schedule a meeting in March 2013 with Rep. Rogers, a Michigan Republican. Rogers’ office told the Herald it had no record of that, though Rogers’ calendar listed a meeting with Isaías in 2011, arranged by Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican and past Curbelo client.
Isaías said Friday he had no recollection of meetings organized by Curbelo, or of exactly what work Curbelo did for him.
“That was a while back,” Isaías said of hiring Curbelo’s government and public relations firm.
Isaías then touted his friendship with both Curbelo and Garcia: “I visit Congress frequently,” he said. “I’m probably more often spotted with Garcia than with Curbelo.”
A government and public relations consultant who in the past has represented a number of Republican politicians and Malaysian casino giant Genting, Curbelo has refused to disclose other clients of his firm, which he founded in 2002. He hasn’t been required to do so because he put Capitol Gains under the sole ownership of his wife, Cecilia, five years ago.
That was done on the advice of U.S. Senate attorneys, Curbelo has said. In 2009, he worked as state director for then-Sen. George LeMieux. That same year, his wife stopped working at the firm after the birth of the couple’s first daughter.
Carlos Curbelo never reverted the firm’s ownership into his name, even after LeMieux left office in in 2010. That same year, Curbelo was elected to the Miami-Dade County School Board, a seat he still holds today while running for the 26th congressional district, which spans Westchester to Key West.
He has filed required financial disclosures as an elected official and congressional candidate but has declined to go beyond those requirements and make his clients public, despite repeated calls to do so.
Last month, Florida Democrats filed a federal ethics complaint over the matter with the U.S. Department of Justice — a move Curbelo derided as a “frivolous” political stunt.
When asked Friday whether he would reveal the rest of his client list, Curbelo refused to give a yes-or-no answer.
“I’m happy to continue answering any questions that anyone may have about any of the work that I have done for any clients,” he said.