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El Salvador kept paying DC lobbyist after claim he was fired

Washington lob­by­ist Robert Stryk con­tin­ued work­ing for El Salvador’s gov­ern­ment even after the country’s pres­i­dent claimed he had annulled a $450,000 con­tract that had caused a wave of crit­i­cism in the poor Central American coun­try, accord­ing to new­ly filed for­eign lob­by­ing records.

In this image take from UNTV video, Nayib Armando Bukele, President of El Salvador, sp…

MIAMI — Washington lob­by­ist Robert Stryk con­tin­ued work­ing for El Salvador’s gov­ern­ment even after the country’s pres­i­dent claimed he had annulled a $450,000 con­tract that had caused a wave of crit­i­cism in the poor Central American coun­try, accord­ing to new­ly filed for­eign lob­by­ing records.

The reports that appeared Saturday show that Stryk’s Sonoran Policy Group con­tin­ued mak­ing calls to con­gres­sion­al offices and col­lect­ed $214,000 in pay­ments from El Salvador’s state intel­li­gence agency even after President Nayib Bukele’s office told The Associated Press in August that it backed away from the deal.

Stryk was one of the most suc­cess­ful lob­by­ists dur­ing the Trump pres­i­den­cy, rack­ing up clients fac­ing sanc­tions or with bruised rep­u­ta­tions in Washington that white-shoed firms stayed away from like the gov­ern­ments of Venezuela and Somalia and back­ers of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange.

Sonoran report­ed in the new fil­ing that in the final quar­ter of 2020, it arranged video and phone calls with six Republican leg­isla­tive aides, all but one of them attend­ed by Peter Dumas, the country’s spy chief. Those it con­tact­ed include the nation­al secu­ri­ty advis­er for House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and an advis­er to Rep. Rick Crawford, who serves on the House intel­li­gence committee.

A day after the Oct. 6 phone call between Sonoran’s Mario Duarte and a senior aide to Crawford, the Arkansas con­gress­man sent a tweet in Spanish say­ing the U.S. will con­tin­ue sup­port­ing “friends and part­ners” like Bukele in the fight against cor­rup­tion and inequality.

The tweet was wide­ly shared in El Salvador. Crawford’s com­ments also drew praise from then‑U.S. Ambassador Ronald Johnson, a Trump appointee who was a big boost­er of Bukele at a time the Central American leader was fac­ing increas­ing crit­i­cism, most­ly among Democrats, that he was tak­ing El Salvador down an author­i­tar­i­an path.

Bukele’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.

In August, it told the AP that the pres­i­dent had nev­er approved the six-month con­tract, which is dat­ed Aug. 15, and had it annulled when he learned of its exis­tence. Bukele’s office and two senior aides wouldn’t say when the con­tract was can­celed or what led to the abrupt rever­sal, but insist­ed no funds had been disbursed.

He didn’t approve the con­tract and it was can­celed. You can ver­i­fy with Sonoran Policy Group,” Bukele’s office said at the time in a writ­ten statement

Stryk at the time wouldn’t com­ment on the contract’s sta­tus but nev­er filed addi­tion­al paper­work indi­cat­ing it had been cancelled.

The firm, which recent­ly changed its name to Stryk Global Diplomacy, received a total of $214,000 in con­tract pay­ments in the final quar­ter of 2020, the last one in late November, accord­ing to the Justice Department fil­ing, which details the firm’s for­eign lob­by­ing activ­i­ty in the final six months of 2020.

The 39-year-old Bukele took office in 2019 as an inde­pen­dent vow­ing to res­cue El Salvador from the deep divi­sions left by uncon­trolled gang vio­lence and sys­temic cor­rup­tion in both right- and left-wing gov­ern­ments that fol­lowed the end of a bloody civ­il war in 1992.

Polls show that an over­whelm­ing major­i­ty of Salvadorans approve of his tough approach and his allies are expect­ed to win a major­i­ty in this mon­th’s con­gres­sion­al elec­tions.

But human rights activists and some busi­ness lead­ers com­plain he has tram­pled on the country’s con­sti­tu­tion, most famous­ly in February, when he sent heav­i­ly armed troops to sur­round the con­gress to pres­sure law­mak­ers into approv­ing a loan to fund the fight against gangs.

He faces a chal­lenge win­ning sup­port from the Biden admin­is­tra­tion, which has backed away from Trump’s hard­line immi­gra­tion pol­i­cy, which Bukele embraced by sign­ing a deal to allow the U.S. to send asy­lum seek­ers from oth­er coun­tries to El Salvador.

Stryk, a wine­mak­er and for­mer Republican aide who unsuc­cess­ful­ly ran for may­or of Yountville, California, rose quick­ly in the high­ly com­pet­i­tive influ­ence indus­try in Trump’s Washington.

A for­mer unpaid Trump cam­paign advis­er on the West Coast, his firm had no report­ed lob­by­ing activ­i­ty from 2013 to 2016 but has billed upward of $18.4 mil­lion to for­eign clients since the start of 2017, accord­ing to the new fil­ing and data from the non­par­ti­san Center for Responsive Politics.

More recent­ly, Stryk teamed up with anoth­er DC firm, Rational 360, which is run by vet­er­an Democratic oper­a­tives includ­ing Joe Lockhart. El Salvador in October hired Rational 360 for $65,000 per month. Bukele’s gov­ern­ment has also award­ed a $780,000 con­tract to a new­ly formed U.S.-based enti­ty called Invest El Salvador.

Stryk’s firm in the final six months of 2020 also col­lect­ed $700,000 from Kenya’s for­eign min­istry. It also received $200,000 in pay­ments from a Portuguese-based com­pa­ny to advo­cate in the U.S. and U.K on behalf of Isabel dos Santos, the daugh­ter of Angola’s for­mer pres­i­dent who is often described as Africa’s rich­est woman. Dos Santos is fight­ing charges in Angola that she used her posi­tion of influ­ence to embez­zle more than $1 bil­lion from the state oil company.

Last year, Stryk reg­is­tered as a for­eign agent to open doors for Venezuela’s social­ist gov­ern­ment. But the law firm that had hired him as a con­sul­tant lat­er ter­mi­nat­ed the $12.5 mil­lion con­tract with a close ally of President Nicolás Maduro amid an out­cry from Florida Republicans, who accused them of shilling for a “dic­ta­tor.”

Stryk was also recent­ly hired by an Australian non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tion to seek a pres­i­den­tial par­don for Assange, who is in cus­tody in the U.K. fight­ing an extra­di­tion request from the U.S.


Follow Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman

Independent By JOSHUA GOODMAN Associated Press Writer