Florida Republican with Nicaragua ties works to defeat Ros-Lehtinen’s crackdown bill

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami.
Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Miami. For The Miami Herald

Ileana Ros-Lehtinen is a longtime proponent of a hardline approach to left-leaning regimes in Cuba and Central America who commands respect from both parties in Washington on Latin American policy.

But a rookie Republican lawmaker and fellow Floridian recently turned on Ros-Lehtinen on one of her signature issues, and she isn’t happy.

Rep. Francis Rooney, R-Naples, was one of 25 members of Congress who signed onto Ros-Lehtinen’s bill that would limit U.S. loans to the government of Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega until the longtime president carries out democratic reforms in the Central American country. The list of cosponsors also includes every Republican and Democrat from Miami-Dade County.

But after Ros-Lehtinen’s bill passed the House by a voice vote in October, Rooney apparently had a change of heart.

According to Ros-Lehtinen and a U.S. official familiar with lobbying work who was not authorized to speak publicly on the matter, Rooney began scouring the halls of the U.S. Senate with Nicaraguan businessmen to lobby against Ros-Lehtinen’s Nicaraguan Investment Conditionality Act after it passed the House of Representatives — with his support.

“Why Rooney chose to lobby against a bill that he himself cosponsored and to do so without even giving me the courtesy of a notice, is practically unheard of in this institution,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “And then to take the extra step of being actively involved in lobbying against it, going to the Senate and lobbying senators against a bill he cosponsored? I don’t know what Rooney’s about, but it was not appreciated. It’s just uncool.”

rooney (2)
Republican U.S. Rep. Francis Rooney

Rooney did not respond to emails, phone calls and a request to speak in person about his work on the bill. A lobbyist hired by the American Chamber of Commerce in Nicaragua, which opposes Ros-Lehtinen’s bill, declined to say whether Rooney was working with them.

“We represent AMCHAM in Nicaragua and we do not comment on client matters,” said Carmen Group chief of staff Alison Cricks.

The American Chamber of Commerce in Nicaragua has spent at least $160,000 to lobby against Ros-Lehtinen’s bill in recent months, according to lobbying records.

Most notably, Carlos Pellas, the first Nicaraguan billionaire and one of the richest men in Central America, has been traveling to Washington since at least August lobbying on this issue. Pellas and Ortega established a “good relationship” when the leftist president decided to respect private property after reassuming the presidency in 2007.

“Rooney can spend every day lobbying against the bill in the Senate,” Ros-Lehtinen said. “I encourage him to waste his time doing so because I believe freedom triumphs over these lobbying tactics.”

Rooney has business ties to Nicaragua. The family construction business he ran before entering Congress built the Pellas Group headquarters in Managua, a 590,000-square-foot earthquake-resistant project that includes a 10-story office tower and a 500-car parking garage.

And Rooney made a fortune before winning his Naples-based congressional seat in 2016. He currently ranks as the 26th richest member of Congress, according to the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call, with an estimated net worth of $22.6 million. He also had a salary of $5.5 million before entering Congress, according to his financial disclosure, and Rooney’s Manhattan Construction Company has built notable structures like Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas, and the George H.W. Bush Presidential Library.

Rooney was a longtime GOP fundraiser and the U.S. ambassador to the Vatican under President George W. Bush from 2005-08. He is also a supporter of President Donald Trump and called for an FBI “purge” to oust agents and investigators working on the Trump-Russia investigation, whom he views as politically compromised.

Ros-Lehtinen said the only reason her bill hasn’t passed the Senate yet is because of “calendar days, scheduling and time.” A host of senators from both parties, including Florida Republican Marco Rubio, Texas Republican Ted Cruz, New Jersey Democrat Bob Menendez, and Vermont Democrat Patrick Leahy, have sponsored a Senate version of Ros-Lehtinen’s bill.

“If we allow Nicaragua’s ruling elite to exploit international loans to further embed their corrupt enterprises with anti-American regimes, we are turning a blind eye,” Cruz said in a statement. “From Venezuela’s petro-dollars scheme to Russia’s arms sales and intelligence operations — this external influence will solidify the future for the people of Nicaragua, and raises national security implications not only for the U.S., but for all of our allies throughout the Western Hemisphere.”

The U.S. official said Rooney is bringing along Nicaraguan representatives to meet with senators.

“Rooney is walking the halls in the Senate,” said the U.S. official. “He’s not doing these meetings one on one. … There are a lot of people lobbying.”

Ros-Lehtinen said she talked to Rooney after she found out that he went behind her back, though they didn’t have a lengthy conversation.

“I said, ‘That’s not a good way to build relationships,’” Ros-Lehtinen said.

“I gave him the benefit of the doubt that maybe he doesn’t know it’s not good form to go against a fellow Republican, Floridian, whose bill you sponsored and then turn around because some lobbyist got to you and changed your mind. Let’s hope it’s a rookie mistake.”

Alex Daugherty: 202-383-6049, @alextdaugherty