Venezuela

This Venezuelan mogul met Pence. Is he trying to broker an exit strategy for Maduro?

Globovisión president Raúl Gorrín shakes hands with Vice President Mike Pence.
Globovisión president Raúl Gorrín shakes hands with Vice President Mike Pence.

A Venezuelan millionaire declared persona non grata by the City of Miami for his alleged ties to the Maduro regime is trying to broker an exit strategy with the Trump administration for his beleaguered government, according to various Washington sources.

Raúl Gorrín, criticized for the controversial purchase in 2013 of the then pro-opposition news channel Globovisión, has paid Ballard Partners — the firm of President Donald Trump’s former Florida lobbyist — $450,000 since June through the U.S. subsidiary of the Venezuelan TV network, ostensibly to help the company expand into U.S. markets.

But Gorrín’s real ambitions appear to extend far beyond the TV network. According to three sources familiar with his lobbying efforts in Washington — all of whom declined to be identified because they were not authorized to speak on the matter — the media mogul is trying to establish himself as a broker between Caracas and the Trump administration, peddling the idea that President Nicolás Maduro and other key government leaders might be willing to negotiate a transition in Venezuela in exchange for amnesty.

And in what might have helped disperse some of the stigma derived from his alleged Venezuela regime ties, Gorrín showed that he also has ties to important opposition figures, including Lilian Tintori, the wife of incarcerated leader Leopoldo López, and Venezuelan Congress President Julio Borges.

“[Gorrín] has been insisting that the solution to Venezuela’s problem is a negotiated solution,” said a Washington source who is familiar with some of the conversations that were held related to the businessman’s efforts. “He said that Maduro would be willing to step down from power, but he would only be willing to do so in a way that guarantees he won’t lose his prestige.”

In the plan Gorrín shared in at least one U.S. meeting, Maduro would hold a presidential election and admit defeat to the opposition as long as enough guarantees were provided that once out of power he and other key government leaders would not face any legal repercussions, the sources said.

“We don’t want another Nuremberg,” Gorrín was quoted by one of the sources as saying in one of the meetings. According to the same source, the statement was taken to mean that the cost of getting a bloodless transition in Venezuela was allowing regime leaders to retire in peace to enjoy the wealth they have accumulated. “They want to keep the money,” the source said.

We don’t want another Nuremberg.

Raúl Gorrín reportedly said at a U.S. meeting

Even though el Nuevo Herald could not establish whether Gorrín has the authority to speak for Maduro, sources said the businessman talked as if he did.

Gorrín did not respond to a detailed list of questions about his U.S. lobbying activities. Through an assistant, Gorrín said he was traveling in Europe and that “as a rule” he grants only face-to-face interviews.

Gorrín appears to have obtained mixed results in his efforts to gain access to Washington insiders — despite Globovisión spending at least as much on lobbying as major U.S. television and movie companies, including Walt Disney Co.

Gorrín met Vice President Mike Pence in recent months, a photo obtained by el Nuevo Herald shows, and has been seeking a meeting with Trump, the sources said.

Vice President Mike Pence told Venezuelans in Doral that he returned from a trip to Latin America convinced the region is united against Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro.

Ballard Partners denied any knowledge of Gorrín’s efforts to influence the Trump administration’s approach to Venezuela or shape a transition of power.

“We’re trying to serve Globovisión’s needs in U.S. markets and in various other regulatory things that come up,” said Brian Ballard, the firm’s founder and a former lobbyist for Trump’s Florida business dealings. Ballard added that Globovisión’s U.S. subsidiary, which has an office in Coral Gables, wants a “bigger, broader market share” across the United States.

We’re trying to serve Globovisión’s needs in U.S. markets and in various other regulatory things that come up.

Brian Ballard, founder of Ballard Partners

Ballard and business partner Sylvester Lukis, who runs the firm’s Washington office, said that before Gorrín became a client he introduced them to Venezuelan opposition figures, including Tintori and Borges. They said Ballard Partners had considered lobbying for the Venezuelan opposition and had discussed the possibility with opposition leaders.

“We considered representing the entirety of the opposition and had conversations about that, but we never could get a united opposition together,” Ballard said. “If the opposition was united in a plan to bring freedom back to Venezuela we would be delighted to assist,” he added in a follow-up email.

But Ballard and Lukis insisted that Venezuelan politics has nothing to do with their lobbying efforts for Gorrín.

“That’s not the reason we were hired,” Lukis said. “We were hired to help promote Globovisión, his television station, become a Spanish-speaking television affiliate of one of the major [TV networks].”

High-level meetings

Ballard Partners said Gorrín has never mentioned a desire to meet with Trump. Lukis said Gorrín attended a June conference at Florida International University where Pence spoke, but that he had not arranged any meetings between Gorrín and the vice president. It’s unclear whether the photo obtained by el Nuevo Herald was taken at the conference and whether the interaction went beyond a handshake.

Pence’s office did not respond to questions about the photo or what, if any, discussion Gorrín had with the vice president.

The Miami conference took place two days after the lobbying contract between Ballard Partners and Globovisión went into effect.

The White House would not say whether Gorrín has been able to schedule a meeting with Trump. “We do not have any information to share on this,” a White House official said.

"The Venezuelan people are starving and their country is collapsing," President Donald Trump stated before the United Nations on Sept. 19, 2017. He later called on other countries to do more to address the crisis in Venezuela under the dictatorship of Nicolas Maduro, which "has inflicted terrible misery and suffering on the good people of that country."

The State Department also declined to say whether Gorrín has met with any State Department officials. “We regularly meet with Venezuelans from across the political spectrum; however, we will not comment on private diplomatic conversations,” said a spokesperson for the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs.

Lukis said he was unable to share information about what meetings the lobbying firm has arranged for Gorrín. “I can’t really get into that,” he said. “What we do on behalf of our clients, that’s privileged information.”

Gorrín has been less reserved about his White House overtures. In a June interview with Venezuelan newspaper Quinto Día, the media mogul said he had met with high-level Trump administration officials, although he insisted the meetings were only to “explain the operations” of Globovisión and the company’s plans for expansion.

“They are meetings similar to the ones I had when I bought Globovisión in the year 2013, where the government authorities gave us their approval in Venezuela and of course we had a meeting so they could meet the person who was going to be the owner of Globovisión,” he told the newspaper. “That’s exactly how it works in the United States.”

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Globovisión president Raúl Gorrín, far left, meets with Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro, right. Courtesy

David Ostroff, chair of the Department of Telecommunication at the University of Florida, said Gorrín’s explanation doesn’t make sense. A foreign television station seeking to expand into the United States would need approval from the Federal Communications Commission, even if the station has a U.S. subsidiary, but the White House doesn’t have authority over the independent regulatory agency.

“The White House would not necessarily be the place they would start if they’re dealing with the FCC,” Ostroff said. “Obviously they would need White House approval or support for this, but the White House has no power to order the FCC to do anything.”

It would make more sense for the station to lobby Congress, which does oversee the FCC, Ostroff said. But Globovisión’s lobbying efforts are focused exclusively on the White House, according to paperwork Ballard Partners filed with the federal government.

Ballard Partners is seen by some as an ideal lobbying firm for clients seeking access to the White House.

Brian Ballard served as a top fundraiser and state finance chairman for Trump during his presidential campaign and as vice chairman for his inaugural committee. A partner at the lobbying firm, Susie Wiles, helped run Trump’s successful Florida campaign.

Since Trump took office, the Florida lobbying firm has opened a Washington office and taken on a number of high-profile federal-level clients, including Amazon and American Airlines. So far, the firm has registered more than $6 million in billings at the federal level, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics.

Viewed with suspicion

Some in the Venezuelan expat community regard Gorrín’s efforts to cozy up to the Trump administration with suspicion.

“This is a person that has clearly benefited from a highly corrupt system that has turned into great tycoons those close to the regime but that at the same time has bankrupt the country, causing the economic disaster that today has thousands of children literally dying of starvation,” said Horacio Medina, the former head of the opposition coalition Democratic Union Roundtable (MUD) in Miami.

Gorrín and two business partners purchased Globovisión in 2013 after Venezuela’s socialist regime drove away the previous owners by imposing expensive fines. The station’s news programming, which had once been critical of the government, took on what many saw as a more socialist, pro-government bent.

(Not everyone agrees that Globovisión’s coverage favors the Maduro regime. A 2015 American University study commissioned by the station found “no significant bias in favor of the government or the opposition.”)

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Globovisión president Raúl Gorrín on a 2014 trip to Miami. Courtesy

Meanwhile, Gorrín and one of his business partners bought luxury properties in Cocoplum, one of South Florida’s wealthiest areas, and have been spotted in Miami dropping thousands of dollars on shopping sprees, a 2014 el Nuevo Herald investigation found.

The contrast between the socialist values they espoused in Venezuela and their Miami lifestyle caught the attention of Sen. Marco Rubio, who singled Gorrín and his business partner out during a 2014 Senate hearing on imposing sanctions against Venezuelan officials.

“They drive luxury cars and they laugh at you and at us because they know they can do that with impunity,” Rubio said.

Lukis said he was aware of the controversy surrounding Gorrín when he signed Globovisión as a client, but had been reassured by Gorrín’s introductions to opposition leaders, who he said vouched for the businessman.

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The contract between Ballard Partners and Globovisión’s U.S. subsidiary. (Highlight added.) Courtesy

“I felt it was OK particularly in light of the fact that I knew we weren’t going to be getting involved in the politics of Venezuela, but instead involved with the company,” Lukis said. “I didn’t believe this man, based on what I saw, was a persona non grata and was in line with the humanitarian abuses in Venezuela.”

Globovisión’s lobbying contract does not go into detail about the company’s plans for expansion, stipulating only that Ballard Partners will advocate for the TV network as it pursues U.S. business opportunities and “advocate on its behalf those issues the Client deems necessary and appropriate before the Federal government.”

A top client

Data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics show that while companies in the industry spend varying amounts on lobbying — from as little as $10,000 to more than $11 million in 2017 — at $450,000 Globovisión’s U.S. subsidiary has spent at least as much as Walt Disney Co. this year.

The U.S. subsidiary is also one of Ballard Partners’ top spending domestic clients at the federal level. Only The GEO Group Inc., a company that runs private prisons, and U.S. Sugar Corporation are paying Ballard Partners as much per month, lobbying records show. (Some of Ballard Partners’ foreign clients have paid significantly more for the firm’s services.)

Ballard Partners did not register Globovisión under the Foreign Agents Registration Act in lobbying records because the lobbying firm represents the U.S. subsidiary, Ballard said. The lobbyists did note on disclosure forms that the Venezuelan company has complete ownership of the U.S. subsidiary.

If he is here operating as an ‘enchufado,’ I don’t think any of these efforts will matter.

Tobias Roche, a former federal agent

Despite Globovisión’s representation by Trump’s former Florida lobbyist, it’s unclear whether anyone in the Trump administration is taking Gorrín seriously.

A U.S. source briefed on Gorrín’s lobbying efforts said the media mogul is wasting his money if he thinks he’s going to be able to establish himself as a broker in the Venezuelan conflict.

“To be honest, this is going to fall on deaf ears in the administration,” the source said. “The administration has taken a very hard line on Venezuela. They’re not interested in hearing from the head of Globovisión. And they’re not interested in some intermediary with the government. It’s not going to appeal to them.”

It’s possible Gorrín is trying to ingratiate himself with U.S. officials, said Tobias Roche, a former federal agent who for 30 years worked with the U.S. Marshals Service and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and who co-founded the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Foreign Political Corruption Program.

But Roche said he doubted the approach would be successful.

“If he is here operating as an enchufado,” Roche said, using the Venezuelan term for the front men of the Maduro regime, “I don’t think any of these efforts will matter.

“These things always come out,” he added.

Follow Antonio María Delgado on Twitter: @DelgadoAntonioM

Kyra Gurney: 305-376-3205, @KyraGurney

Franco Ordoñez: fordonez@mcclatchydc.com, @francoordonez 

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