Loose talk and small change

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By Indranie Deolall

Just weeks before the abrupt conclusion of Guyana’s prolonged election crisis, the People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) quietly ended its contract with the American lobbying firm, Mercury Public Affairs having spent over $63 million against its main rival’s $10 million.

According to filings with the United States (US) Department of Justice, the Washington-based bipartisan group terminated its consultant agreement with the PPP/C effective July 9 this year. Six days later, the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo announced initial visa sanctions against unnamed individuals undermining democracy here, on top of repeated warnings from Washington. He made a historic visit to oil-rich Guyana in September.

The PPP/C’s candidate Irfaan Ali was sworn in as the ninth executive president on August 2, after the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM) boss, Claudette Singh finally declared the results in favour of the main Opposition party, with the corrected voting submissions by the controversial chief elections officer, Keith Lowenfield.

Prudent pre-emptive move

President Ali’s appointment followed an unprecedented five-month impasse marked by clumsy rigging attempts, mounting international pressure, lengthy court battles and an authoritative 33-day recount. Unproven allegations of irregularities were made by the ruling A Party for National Unity+ Alliance for Change (APNU+AFC) dominated by the People’s National Congress (PNC), even as the coalition claimed and celebrated victory at the March 2, 2020 elections, without ever revealing its’ still missing Statements of Polls (SOPs).

In a prudent, pre-emptive move, the PPP/C hired Mercury for an initial US$150, 000 in March 2019 ahead of the elections, given the ongoing refusal of the APNU+AFC administration led by president David Granger to resign, with the surprise passage of the December 21, 2018 no-confidence motion enabled by the single crucial crossover vote by the then AFC Member of Parliament (MP) Charrandass Persaud.

But the overall spending ended higher, with the PPP/C handing over a recorded total of US$253, 557 in 2019 to Mercury, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics which tracks money in US politics and its effects on elections and public policy.

Getting every cent worth

OpenSecrets.org, the premier research group’s award-winning website, indicates that in the first half of this year, Mercury collected another US$49, 965 for a total of more than US$303 000 (estimated $63M). The dissemination of the last batch of informational material featuring copies of election-related reports by the Financial Times correspondent Andres Schipani was dated June 1, 2020. The media updates were registered by Mercury with the FARA Unit of the Counterintelligence and Export Control Section (CES) in the National Security Division (NSD). FARA is the Foreign Agents Registration Act under the US Department of Justice which mandates periodic public disclosure, including activities, receipts and disbursements from certain agents of foreign principals.

Last year, the then opposition leader and former two-times Guyana president Bharrat Jagdeo defended the $34 million Mercury price tag as well-spent proclaiming, “We’re getting every cent worth. Every cent is worth it.” He said the money was through donations from PPP/C supporters here and overseas. The wily Jagdeo remains a powerful frontman and is the sole vice president in the new Ali administration.

“We are happy that this firm is effective and we believe that they will get the message out to Washington, which is one for free and fair elections. It is a universal value and we believe with their help we can counter the lies” he argued. Insisting during a press conference, “We are doing this for Guyana. We are paying money from the PPP fund for Guyana,” Jagdeo even suggested the cash be reimbursed by the Granger government terming it “a shame” that the lobbying was necessary because of the “transgressions.”

Courted Biden’s adviser

Foreign Lobby.com reported agents registered on the PPP/C’s Mercury account included the former US Representative for Florida’s 26th congressional district, Jose Antonio Garcia, a Democrat who lost re-election in 2014, and Bryan Lanza, a 2016 Donald Trump campaign and transition official. Mercury co-chairman Gustavo Arnavat was also named, along with managing director, Beth DeFalco, a crisis communications strategist and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. Arnavat is a former US executive director of the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).

Others were senior vice president Rodney Emery, who served in the Obama Administration as a presidential appointee at the US Department of Commerce; Hannah Kikano, a director in Mercury’s New York City office, specialising in media and public affairs campaigns; and Christopher Murphy, a director in the firm’s Washington branch, where he works on government relations for international clients.

Foreign Lobby.com is founded by Julian Pecquet, the editor of Foreign Lobby Report, which tracks the US$500 million-a-year foreign influence industry. Neither Mercury nor the PPP/C responded to requests for comment about the timing of the termination, Pecquet noted in a July piece, and there has been no public mention of it here by key figures.

In another post, he said that the PPP/C courted the Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s campaign on the Guyana election standoff, with Arnavat reaching out to one of the team’s Latin American advisers, Daniel Erikson. Erikson is a Senior Fellow at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement and served as special advisor to vice president Biden.

Every vote will be counted

Last Saturday, Biden Jr. was elected the 46th president of the US, defeating president Donald Trump after winning Pennsylvania, which puts the Democrat’s expected total of Electoral College votes above the 270 required. The US mainstream media projected the election victor, but state-by-state results remain to be certified and several vote counts are continuing with run-offs set for January. The US Electoral College of delegates meets on December 14 to formally name the winner.

As feared, president Trump has refused to concede, up to press time, falsely declaring that he won the November 3 elections and accusing the Democrats of engaging in mass voter fraud, leading to a flurry of contesting lawsuits not unlike the coalition’s campaign to stay in government. On Tuesday, a smiling Secretary of State, Pompeo sparked concern over his apparent joke that “there will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration” come January. He snapped at a Reuters’ reporter for her “ridiculous” questioning whether president Trump’s refusal to concede, discredits the US efforts to promote democratic transition overseas. The US State Department “cares deeply to make sure that elections around the world are safe and secure and free and fair, and my officers risk their lives to ensure that that happens,” Pompeo replied.

“We often encounter situations where it’s not clear about a particular election” but “we work to uncover facts” and to learn whether the outcome reflected the will of the people, he stated, insisting “We want every one of those votes to be counted in the same way that we have every expectation that every vote here in the United States will be counted too.”

US$170,000 for Cormac Group

The PPP/C’s ally, the International Center for Democracy, a New York non-profit engaged the Cormac Group to lobby on its behalf. OpenSecrets.org shows that US$170, 000 was paid by the Center in 2020 to Cormac for lobbying by Jose Cardenas and Jonathan Slade on “miscellaneous issues.”

At the end of March, the site confirms, the APNU+AFC coalition in turn hastily prepared a notorious dossier on behalf of the incumbent Government and brought in its own American lobbying firm JJ&B for US$50,000 (about $10M), in a desperate but failed effort to drum up support. However, OpenSecrets.org reveals JJ&B has surprisingly continued to labour for the APNU+AFC with the most recent promotional material of a speech by the current Opposition Leader, Joseph Harmon at the swearing-in of the Region Four Chairman, shared on November 2, to representatives including from the Office of Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

Expressing alarm over Ali’s recent statements that the 2021 Local Government Elections will not be held until there is a satisfactory overhaul of the compromised GECOM, Harmon promised “serious resistance” maintaining his party’s elections petitions before the Court will succeed.

Outrageous attempt to undermine elections

JJ&B partner Bart Fisher in a July 7, 2020 opinion-editorial for the State-owned Guyana Chronicle, kept up the coalition’s spurious charges that “Lowenfield found serious fraud on the part of the PPP/C” citing “a lot of loose talk by the PPP/C about possible sanctions that might be imposed by the United States and other countries against Guyana and … Lowenfield, if the PPP/C is not declared the winner.”

By July 29, Cormac’s Slade, a Democrat, shot back with his, slamming the coalition and Mr Granger for their “power grab.” He wrote, “The refusal of the Granger government to concede the loss, and peacefully hand over power, is disturbing to Americans, whether Democrats or Republicans” terming Lowenfield’s attempt to disqualify 115,000 votes “as one of the most outrageous attempts to undermine elections ever seen in the non-communist world.”

“The Democrats who joined their Republican colleagues in calling on Granger and his party to respect the outcome of the elections were some of the most influential Members of Congress on foreign policy issues,” he said.

Slade concluded, “If Biden wins the November election and the Granger government is still grasping to power, there will be no basis for the new US administration to reverse the sanctions…put in place by the Trump administration,” adding there is no doubt that “a new president Biden will follow in the footsteps of his Democratic predecessors and support the outcome of the election in Guyana of March 2020, as ratified by the recount of June.” For the triumphant PPP/C all the small change was certainly worth it.

*ID hears president Trump’s quotation, “I have had lobbyists, and I have had some very good ones. They could do anything.”

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