MIAMI (CBSMiami) – Surrounded by advisors, the President of Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou, smiled warmly into the camera as the American congressman heaped praise upon him.
“Mr. President, let me thank you for your leadership, for your steadfast leadership,” the congressman began during a 2014 video conference between Taipei and Washington. “Mr. President, I cannot tell you how much I cherish the relationship not only between the United States and the Republic of China Taiwan, but frankly the fact that I’ve gotten to work with you, to know you, to trust you.”
The comments by Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart were not surprising. He has been a longtime advocate for Taiwan, serving as the co-chair of the Congressional Taiwan Caucus. Through his position on the powerful House Appropriations Committee the Miami Republican has pushed issues important to Taiwan, including efforts to sell them advanced U-S fighter jets.
“You are a trusted, reliable friend not only to the United States, President Ma, but also to the cause of freedom around the world,” Diaz-Balart said.
One point Mario Diaz-Balart failed to mention during the video conference is that the Taiwanese government has given the Miami congressman three, all-expense paid trips to Taiwan. Diaz-Balart’s financial disclosure forms show he embarked on a six day trip to Taiwan in 2009, a six day trip in 2011 and a five day trip in 2014 – with Taiwan picking up the tab.
And since 2012, Diaz-Balart’s brother – Lincoln – has been paid more than $1.3 million to work as a lobbyist on behalf of Taiwan in Congress. The payments to Lincoln Diaz-Balart, who served in Congress for eighteen years, are documented in forms he is required to file with the Justice Department under the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA).
Lincoln’s foreign lobbying work has not been limited to Taiwan. Starting in July 2012 and ending in July 2017, Lincoln’s firm, Western Hemisphere Strategies, was paid approximately $1.2 million to lobby on behalf of the Kingdom of Morocco and its ruler, King Mohammed VI.
Mario Diaz-Balart is a member of the Congressional Morocco Caucus and was previously its co-chair. As he does with Taiwan, Mario Diaz-Balart has advocated on behalf of Morocco in Congress and in a press release from 2011 even touted his ability to secure increased funding for the kingdom in Congress.
“What are the odds that he is going to co-chair the caucus – the Moroccan Caucus and the Taiwan Caucus – the two countries, the only two countries that his brother is representing as a lobbyist,” asked Sheila Krumholz, executive director for the Center for Responsive Politics, a non-partisan organization that shows the connection between money and decision-making in Washington.
“The potential for conflicts of interest seems pretty clear,” she noted. “Mario’s constituents need to know that the policies and decisions he’s making on behalf of his constituents back home are based on their best interest and on the interest on the nation and not influenced at all by the business and interests and clients of his family member.”
“I’m not saying there is anything nefarious or untoward,” she continued, “but appearances matter.”
Adav Noti, the senior director for the Campaign Legal Center, a non-profit Washington watchdog group that examines issues related to foreign influence, said he had never seen a circumstance like the one involving the Diaz-Balart brothers.
“My reaction is that it looks terrible and that it should be raising the question among the congressman’s constituents of whether these actions he’s taking to advance the interests of foreign regimes, whether he is taking those actions because he believes it is in the best interest of his constituents or because his brother is getting paid millions of dollars to advocate for them,” Noti said. “None of that is illegal but the fact that that sort of conduct is lawful highlights the need for stronger laws in this area.”
Mario Diaz-Balart declined several requests for an interview.
His spokeswoman, Katrina Bishop, issued the following statement: “For many years, Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart has been a proud supporter of the U.S. democratic ally Taiwan, and has been one of four bipartisan co-chairs of the Congressional Taiwan Caucus (since November 2010), one of the largest caucuses in Congress.”
“While Communist China bullies businesses, international organizations, and other countries in an attempt to isolate Taiwan, the U.S. Congress has stood firmly with Taiwan for decades,” the statement continues. “The Congressman has long supported strong ties and trade with America’s free and democratic allies, and accordingly counts the independent and resilient people of Taiwan among the United States’ most valued friends.”
Regarding the three trips Diaz-Balart took to Taiwan, that were paid for by the Taiwanese government, Bishop said, “All the trips were fully and appropriately disclosed.”
THE BROTHERS DIAZ-BALART
Mario and Lincoln Diaz-Balart are part of a political dynasty that stretches from Havana to Tallahassee and ultimately Washington.
Their father, Rafael, served in the Cuban legislature before Castro came to power. Following the Cuban revolution, the family fled, eventually rebuilding their lives in South Florida with Lincoln and Mario entering politics. Both served in the state Legislature, with Lincoln, the older brother, setting the path.
In 1992, Lincoln was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in Florida’s 21st Congressional District. Mario followed him in 2002, winning election to the neighboring 25th Congressional District.
They served simultaneously for eight years before Lincoln retired and left congress January 2011.
Under congressional ethics laws, Lincoln Diaz-Balart was barred from lobbying Congress for one year. His last day as a member of Congress was January 3, 2011.
On January 5, 2012 – two days after his lobbying ban expired – Lincoln Diaz-Balart signed a contract with the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office (TECRO), a branch of Taiwan’s government, for the expressed purpose of “working diligently to exhort members of Congress and the United States Senate to act favorably on matters of interest and benefit to Republic of China (Taiwan),” according to the FARA records on file with the Justice Department
A copy of the 2012 contract reveals Lincoln Diaz-Balart would be paid $15,000 a month. A year later, in 2013, his compensation was raised to $18,000 a month, and those payments have continued ever since, according to federal records. Since signing the contract in January 2012, Diaz-Balart and his firm has been paid $1,368,000 by the government of Taiwan.
Under his contract with TECRO, Diaz-Balart says he will not lobby his brother. “Both parties understand and agree that [Western Hemisphere Strategies] will not engage in advocacy before U.S. Representative Mario Diaz-Balart or his staff,” the contract states.
Noti, with the Campaign Legal Center and the former associate general counsel for the Federal Elections Commission, said that particular clause in Lincoln Diaz-Balart’s contract is “not worth the paper it’s written on.”
“That’s a private contractual provision between [Lincoln Diaz-Balart] and his client,” Noti said. “There is no mechanism for the US government or anyone else to enforce that provision if he decides to disregard it.”
A search of social media found several instances in recent years where Mario and Lincoln Diaz-Balart were photographed together with officials from Taiwan. On September 5, 2016, Mario Diaz-Balart posted a picture on Twitter showing himself standing alongside his brother, Lincoln, and the new Taiwanese ambassador to the United States.
He added this note to the photo: “Pleased to have met w the new Taiwanese Ambassador to U.S., Stanley Kao. Look forward to working w you! @TECRO_USA”
Other photos show Mario and Lincoln sitting on a platform together with other members of Congress at events celebrating Taiwan.
“What good does it do to have a contract that says I won’t lobby my brother on these issues when you are physically attending events [together],” Noti said. “It shows that contractual provision has no real effect. If you can sign a contract saying, `I will not lobby my brother on behalf of the Taiwanese government,’ and then accompany your brother to an official event with the head of the Taiwanese government, it demonstrates how little that contractual provision means.”
Krumholz, with the Center for Responsive Politics, agreed.
“To me this seems to lack basic common sense,” she said, adding that Mario Diaz-Balart should have publicly reported this on his own years ago. “He needs to go above and beyond [what is required], be forthright about this potential for conflicts of interest, to not pretend that it doesn’t exist,” she said, “because it is pretty evident.”
“The burden should be on him,” she added. “It can’t be on his brother, his brother doesn’t work for us.”
Lincoln Diaz-Balart declined a request for an interview. In a statement he said he does not believe his work on behalf of Taiwan creates a conflict of interest for his brother.
The statement, provided by his administrative assistant, added: “Specifically, former Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart has never lobbied Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart on behalf of the client or the former client you refer to – or any client, for that matter. In addition, and despite there being no legal requirement to do so, the agreements former Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart’s firm entered into with the client and the former client made clear that former Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart does not engage in advocacy before Congressman Mario Diaz-Balart or his staff.”
Lincoln Diaz-Balart began working on behalf of the Kingdom of Morocco in July 2012, with a formal contract signed in January 2013, according to records filed with the Justice Department.
Starting in July 2012, Diaz-Balart’s company, Western Hemisphere Strategies, was paid $20,000 a month by the Moroccan American Center for Policy (MACP), a non-profit company created in the United States that received millions of dollars, nearly all of its funding, from the Kingdom of Morocco.
According to the agreement signed by Lincoln Diaz-Balart in 2013, he would provide “services” designed to “positively affect relations between Morocco and the United States.”
The contract between MACP and Diaz-Balart’s Western Hemisphere Strategies (WHS), also states: “Both parties understand and agree that WHS will not engage in advocacy before US representative Mario Diaz-Balart or his staff.”
Lincoln Diaz-Balart notified the Justice Department that his work representing Morocco’s interest ended in November 2017, although his last payment was made in June 2017. During the nearly five years he worked on behalf of Morocco, Diaz-Balart was paid $1.2 million.
Between Taiwan and Morocco the total paid to Lincoln Diaz-Balart and his firm since 2012 is approximately $2.5 million.
Edward Gabriel, the former US Ambassador to Morocco from 1997 to 2001, who is listed on MACP’s website as the group’s executive director, said he hired Lincoln Diaz-Balart because he is “very steeped in international affairs.”
Asked if part of the reason for hiring Lincoln was because Mario was still a member of Congress, Gabriel said: “No. My reason for hiring Lincoln was his understanding of the region. He has had a long history and knowledge of North Africa and the Southern Mediterranean.”
Gabriel said the only reason Diaz-Balart’s lobbying agreement ended in November 2017, is that Gabriel decided to cut MACP’s financial relationship with Morocco as a client.
“We basically shut down the whole lobby operation,” he said.
In April 2017, the Kingdom of Morocco normalized relations with the government of Cuba, recently exchanging ambassadors.
It is not clear if Morocco’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba affected Diaz-Balart’s decision to stop representing Morocco. Asked if it played a role, a spokeswoman for Lincoln Diaz-Balart replied: “As the public records reflect, former Congressman Lincoln Diaz-Balart’s firm’s representation of that former client ended.”
Neither the Congressional Taiwan Caucus nor the Congressional Morocco Caucus are considered controversial. The two caucuses haves both Republican and Democratic members from South Florida.
The Taiwan caucus includes Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, Ted Deutch, Alcee Hastings, Frederica Wilson and Debbie Wasserman Schultz.
The current chair of the Morocco caucus is Congressman Carlos Curbelo.
None of those congressional members, however, have any known family members working on behalf of either Taiwan or Morocco.
As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, Mario Diaz-Balart serves on the subcommittee that oversees U.S. spending on foreign aid, including approving funds for both Taiwan and Morocco. Since 2012, both countries have received millions in US assistance.
Diaz-Balart also serves on the subcommittee oversee appropriations for the Department of Defense. The Defense Departments spends tens of millions every year on security issues involving Morocco.
In 2013, Diaz-Balart co-sponsored the Taiwan Policy Act, which sought to provide Taiwan with a wide range of military weapons, including advanced fighter jets, submarines, surface-to-air missiles, and cruise missiles. The measure never made it out of the House.
It is also difficult to know what actions Mario Diaz-Balart may be taking behind the scenes on behalf of his brother’s clients. A recent profile in the Miami Herald, noted how he often refuses to discuss who he meets with in the Administration or what they discuss. “That’s how I get things done,” he told the Herald.
During that 2014 video conference between Taiwan’s President Ma and officials in the United States, Mario Diaz-Balart had just one question of President Ma. He asked the President “if you have any ideas as to what more the Congress of the United States can do to further that very special relationship.”
President Ma responded by saying: “Thank you very much for your very nice, friendly comments.”