Wanted by Ecuador, 2 Brothers Make Mark in U.S. Campaigns
By FRANCES ROBLESMARCH 11, 2014
MIAMI — The donations kept pouring in: hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions to President Obama and more than a dozen members of Congress, carefully routed through the families of two wealthy brothers in Florida.
They had good reason to be generous. The two men, Roberto and William Isaias, are fugitives from Ecuador, which has angrily pressed Washington to turn them over, to no avail. A year after their relatives gave $90,000 to help re-elect Mr. Obama, the administration rejected Ecuador’s extradition request for the men, fueling accusations that such donations were helping to keep the brothers and their families safely on American soil.
“The Isaias brothers fled to Miami not to live off their work, something just, but to buy themselves more mansions and Rolls-Royces and to finance American political campaigns,” President Rafael Correa of Ecuador told reporters last month. “That’s what has given them protection,” he added, an allegation the Obama administration and members of Congress reject.
Roberto Isaias, who has withstood extradition requests from Ecuador, in Miami last month. Credit Angel Valentin for The New York Times
The tug of war over the Isaias brothers, sentenced in an embezzlement case, is part of a broader battle between Ecuador and the White House over international fugitives, including two other men the Obama administration would like to get its hands on: Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, and Edward J. Snowden, the former intelligence contractor.
For close to two years, Ecuador has sheltered Mr. Assange in its embassy in London, arguing that he risks persecution and possibly the death penalty if he ultimately faces trial in the United States for revealing American secrets. Similarly, the White House fumed when Ecuador expressed an openness to granting asylum to Mr. Snowden as well.
But beyond the political hostilities between the two nations, campaign finance experts say, the extensive donations in the Isaias case create the appearance of a financial conflict of interest that hangs over Washington’s decisions on the brothers’ fate. While the contributions were not illegal, analysts say they have opened the already politicized nature of extradition requests to greater scrutiny and raised questions about the access to power the donations provide.
Some analysts have even questioned whether fund-raisers have specifically sought out the two men for contributions because it was clear they were in trouble and would be more likely to give.
“There is a certain mercenary aura on the Hill when it comes to overlap of fund-raising from wealthy individuals with problems,” said Ken Boehm, chairman of the National Legal and Policy Center, a research group. “The key elements are all there: They are wealthy and have problems that are solved by the discretionary judgment of someone in the administration. They have tons of money and are willing to write checks all over the place.”
Donations from the relatives of criminal suspects have proved vexing before. In 2012, Mr. Obama’s re-election campaign said it would return more than $200,000 raised by relatives of a Mexican casino magnate who had fled charges in the United States and sought a pardon to return.
The White House says that the decisions in the Isaias case are not influenced by donations.
“The Departments of Justice and State evaluate extradition requests to ensure they meet the terms of the applicable treaty and all requisite legal standards,” Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman, said in a statement. “These decisions are made on the merits by legal experts at the departments without regard for political contributions.”
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Roberto Isaias is open about making targeted contributions to lawmakers from both parties.
“My family has given to about 20 congressmen who fight for human rights and freedom of speech in Latin America,” Mr. Isaias, 69, said in an interview. “That’s legal. If it looks good or bad, the thing I can tell you is that we have never asked for a favor in the case of me or my brother William.”
Mr. Isaias noted that he and his brother did not make any contributions because, without green cards, they are ineligible to do so.
In 2012, the two were sentenced in absentia to eight years in prison in Ecuador in what the government there calls a scheme to run a bank into the ground by making loans to businesses they controlled and then presenting false balance sheets to get bailout funds. Ecuador says it lost more than $400 million, and Interpol issued a “red notice,” or international alert, for the men, though some people familiar with the case said the Isaias brothers had been scapegoated and had little chance of a fair trial at home.
As their legal troubles have mounted, Roberto’s wife; their children, daughter-in-law and nephews; and a few employees have donated at least $320,000 to American political campaigns since 2010, finance records show.
Around $100,000 of that, largely from the fugitives’ spouses and children, went to more than a dozen members of Congress, including Senator Robert Menendez, Democrat of New Jersey; Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Senator Marco Rubio, Florida Republicans; and Representative Joe Garcia, Democrat of Florida — all of whom have acknowledged trying to help the family with immigration troubles.
The case dates to 1998, when half of Ecuador’s banks collapsed and tens of thousands of people lost their savings. The Ecuadorean government took over the Isaiases’ bank, Filanbanco, and poured in bailout funds to keep it afloat. Roberto Isaias says that no money was ever pilfered.
As the investigation heated up, the men sought refuge in Miami, where the family owned Republic National Bank, known for financing Cuban-American businesses. It was sold in 1999, making the brothers a fortune as the crisis exploded in Ecuador.
In 2005, Kristie A. Kenney, then the American ambassador to Ecuador, wrote a scathing cable to Washington accusing the brothers of financing a $2 million bribe to get Ecuador’s attorney general to drop the case. She acknowledged then that the government of Ecuador offered feeble documentation to back up its extradition request, but she attributed that to pressure from the Isaias family, which owned 27 radio stations, three newspapers and a sugar production company.
Some American officials tried to revoke the brothers’ visas over money-laundering accusations, she wrote in the cable, released by WikiLeaks.
“Employing the finest attorneys their millions allow, the Isaiases have successfully fought deportation for years,” she wrote. She urged the State Department to deport the brothers.
The Department of Justice sent representatives to Ecuador to discuss the matter at least twice, people familiar with the case said. Each time, American officials explained that Ecuador’s application for extradition lacked basic legal requirements.
“Ecuador would send Washington 3,000 pages of documents, and the U.S. would say, ‘Hey, stop sending all these pages. Send me proof,’ ” Mr. Isaias said.
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Shortly after the fiery Mr. Correa took office in 2007, he seized the Isaias family businesses, taking over about 200 companies worth $1 billion and creating laws to help go after the brothers, Mr. Isaias contended. The Ecuadorean government later sued them in state court in Miami to recover funds. Last June, a judge ruled in the Isaiases’ favor.