By Indranie Deolall
A record $100 million was publicly spent by the People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) and a rising New York-based group of diaspora allies, on lobbying critical American support in the lead up to the March 2, 2020, high-stakes elections and during the five-month democracy crisis that ensued.
Data compiled by the Washington-based independent, non-profit watchdog, the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), shows the now ruling party paid US$253,557 in 2019 to the consulting firm Mercury Public Affairs. Another US$49,965 went to Mercury prior to its early July 2020 termination of the March 5, 2019 agreement signed, a full year before the closely contested Guyana polls, by the PPP/C’s Executive Secretary Zulfikar Mustapha and the firm’s chief executive officer, Kieran Mahoney, a respected political strategist.
History of rigging elections
The terms of reference included representing Freedom House before, and arranging meetings with the executive branch and the US Congress, the Organization of American States (OAS), and think-tanks in connection with issues relating to the anticipated general and regional elections. The accord was initially up to June 5, 2019, but had to be considerably extended far into this year, since the then much-angered president David Granger-regime refused to resign, after the surprise passage of the December 2018 no-confidence motion enabled by the single crossover vote by the then AFC member of parliament Charrandass Persaud.
In one particularly prescient package of “informational material” registered in October 2019 by Mercury with the FARA Unit of the Counterintelligence and Export Control Section (CES) in the National Security Division the lobbying agent wrote: “The APNU (PNC) has a history of rigging elections over the years and maybe trying to do it again” predicting that it “will never hold free and fair elections without international pressure and international election observers.”
Force Guyanese to emigrate
Mercury pointed out that since Guyana borders Venezuela, Granger’s refusal to uphold the rule of law threatened to further destabilize the region and erode US efforts to promote democracy in the region. This would jeopardise American strategic and economic interests, such as ExxonMobil’s discovery of the then over 6 billion barrels of oil and gas offshore. “There are approximately 270,000 Guyanese living in the US and violence and instability in Guyana will force Guyanese to emigrate and join families in the US,” Mercury argued.
The Mercury backgrounder noted, “Guyana is a poor country, but its newfound oil wealth could bring increased corruption, drug and people trafficking that affects US interests if a lawful environment is not established and supported.” 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.
Dislodge the unwilling
The Freedom House pay-out totalled some US$303,000 or an equivalent $63 million (estimated $1US=$209). But during the second quarter, it became obvious that the losing incumbent A Partnership for National Unity +Alliance for Change (APNU+AFC) administration was escalating efforts to illegally cling to power in the wake of a much-publicised vote-rigging fiasco at the Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM).
This increasingly worried the PPP/C’s Liberty Avenue-ally, the International Center for Democracy (ICD) which fielded a team of observers to the polls and witnessed the early derailing of the Region Four tabulation process. Galvanising its donors and outraged members mainly of the large Indo-Guyanese immigrant community in Queens, the non-governmental organisation also set up a Go-Fund Me account “Friends of Guyana for Democracy and Freedom” in January 2019. Up to four months ago it had raised US$40, 273 through small individual contributions such as US$100. Yet in the second quarter of this year, it quickly entered into an expensive pact with another American lobbying establishment in a fresh bid to garner authoritative backing to dislodge the unwilling APNU+AFC.
It hired the Cormac Group, handing over an initial US$100,000 followed by US$70,000 more in the third quarter. The two disbursements of up to $35.53 milliom in local currency would take the combined PPP/C and ICD minimum known expenditure on official US lobbying covering the election, to $98,857 million, a staggering sum. Mere weeks after the Guyana vote, at the end of March last, the desperate APNU+AFC coalition brought in its own American outfit JJ&B for US$50,000 (about $10.45M), giving the company’s partner Bart Fisher an all but impossible brief that failed to drum up enough US support for the fraying alliance to stay in charge, despite knowing that it had lost the election.
The hefty bill makes the closely contested-2020 national and regional polls even more historic, as easily the country’s costliest, considering the estimated hundreds of millions in other election-related expenses racked up in still undisclosed heavy campaigning and steep legal fees plus granted costs, accumulated by the PPP/C and its long-time rival, the APNU’s dominant party, the People’s National Congress (PNC) as the pair battled all the way to the Caribbean Court of Justice (CCJ) and back.
Lobbying House and Senate
Documents on the CRP’s award-winning research website, OpenSecrets.org, including mandatory reports filed with the US Senate Office of Public Records, show that the ICD’s money went to Cormac’s Jonathan Slade and Jose Cardenas but the “miscellaneous issues” constituted the pair lobbying the House of Representatives and the Senate on behalf of the NGO under the vaguely-termed “US-Guyana relations” that meant engaging top officials on the electoral crisis.
Cormac’s Slade, a Democrat would write an opinion editorial criticising the APNU+AFC’s “power grab” in late July following a pro-APNU piece from Fisher. Slade, who digitally signed the US$100,000 Senate submission on July 16, 2020, and the US$70,000 filing on October 20, 2020, is a veteran in the business, having previously been the director of the Washington office and a leading figure in other lobbying groups such as MWW and the Keefe Company. Serving as an adjunct professor to the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University, he taught courses on state and local lobbying and advanced lobbying strategies.
Nearly $110 million Lobby tab
A right-wing, conservative pundit, Cardenas, a former USAID acting assistant administrator for Latin America and the Caribbean, and an appointee on the National Security Council under president George W. Bush held a virtual media meeting in June, that was widely publicised here and in the region, warning the “troublesome” Guyana situation paved the way for US sanctions to be imposed and restrictions to be placed on the country’s growing oil funds at the United States Federal Reserve if the will of the people was not respected. Cormac Group was hired by 45 other clients in 2020, for a total amount of US$2,960,000, OpenSecrets.org reveals.
A third lobbyist, a former US House of Representatives staffer Thomas Kahn toiled behind the scenes for the ICD representing “Guyanese-American relations.” Congress online files show he received US$5,000 for his troubles, but the amount does not turn up on the radar of the Center for Responsive Politics since filing for such smaller amounts is non-mandatory. Add this to the $98.857M joint PPP/C and ICD expenditure on official US lobbying and it climbs to $98.961 million. With the $10.45 million handed over by the APNU+AFC the overall known American lobby spending tab by Guyana’s two main political entities soars to nearly $110 million ($109.307M) according to figures provided by the CRP. The CRP tracks money in US politics and its effect on elections and public policy.
Democracy and dark money
Former president Bharrat Jagdeo had delivered the keynote address when the ICD was launched in Howard Beach in July 2017, with several elected officials including Guyanese-born Brooklyn member of the New York Senate Roxanne Persaud, Senator James Sanders and Assemblyman Jamaican-born Nick Perry attending. “If there is a time to figure out what democracy is, now is the time,” declared Senator Sanders, reported Caribbean Life. “Tonight, we’re showing the world that we’re taking back democracy,” added Senator Persaud. Perry acknowledged the ICD’s “very high goals not only for Guyana, but also for my little country (Jamaica), and especially what’s going to happen to our democracy in this country (the USA).”
Meanwhile, with another razor-thin parliamentary majority, Guyana is locked in a political duopoly and perpetual power struggle particularly now, to control the much-coveted anticipated revenue from the big deepwater oil finds off our rich coastline. So all that $110 million in cash went to just three private overseas firms but the true sources of most of the forwarded funds remain alarmingly unclear, as well as the many lingering questions who these wealthy donors are and whether they have been rewarded with positions and influence in the Irfaan-Ali government.
The spending patterns could signal the shadowy start of an ultra-expensive era of dark money, in this polarised Republic’s uncertain elections future, that is more akin to the deep pocket partisanship which plays out daily in the United States of America, but especially every four years.
*ID thinks of the quotation from the American businessman, the Arizona Democrat, Fred DuVal: “Dark money has turned our elections into auctions.”