Ballard Partners registered as a foreign agent with the U.S. Justice Department on Jan. 13, according to filings made public over the weekend. The contract, dated Jan. 12, was signed by Alfonso Quinonez, Guatemala's ambassador to the U.S., and Brian Ballard, president of the namesake lobbying firm and a longtime Trump ally.
It's not clear how hiring Ballard, who years before Trump ran for the White House worked for him as a lobbyist in Florida, will be able to help Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei draw closer to the Democratic administration of President Joe Biden, which has repeatedly expressed concerns about corruption in the Central American nation.
On Sunday, the U.S. State Department blasted Giammattei's government for seeking to lift the immunity from prosecution of a judge who has won high honors in Washington for exposing bribery in Guatemala.
“This action against an internationally recognized independent judge weakens a vital pillar of Guatemala’s democracy and judicial system," spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
In its registration, Ballard only said it would provide “strategic consulting and advocacy services” related to Guatemala's interactions with the U.S. government and U.S. officials.
Justin Sayfie, a partner in Ballard’s Washington office, declined to comment further. But he said the request for Taiwan to assume responsibility for payment was not the firm's idea.
“It's unusual for one government to be paying the fees for lobbying for another government,” said Robert Kelner, an attorney specializing in compliance with foreign lobbying laws for Covington & Burling. “It’s not illegal. But it does raise a question of whether the government that pays also needs to be listed by the lobbying firm as a foreign principal."
Guatemala in a statement thanked Taiwan for “the support that allows us to strengthen our positioning in the U.S." It said the one year contract with Ballard, for which it is paying $75,000 a month, will focus on strategic communication, investor outreach and promoting tourism.
Guatemala is one of only 13 mostly small, developing countries that still have full diplomatic relations with Taiwan, which split from mainland Communist-run China amid civil war in 1949.
Responding to questions from The Associated Press, Taiwanese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Joanne Ou on Tuesday said the arrangement followed the principle of “mutual assistance and mutual benefit to promote pragmatic diplomacy," based on the needs of governments friendly to Taiwan.
Ou said the assistance complied with U.S. law and was endorsed by both Guatemala's government and its political opposition.
“In the future, the two countries will continue to promote various programs beneficial to their nations and peoples on the basis of the existing good cooperation," Ou said in an emailed statement.
Taiwan in the past has donated fleets of buses, agricultural equipment and other high-profile gifts to its allies. But it's been unable to compete with China, which considers Taiwan a breakaway territory and has aggressively worked to isolate it on the world stage.
Recently, Beijing secured diplomatic recognition from Guatemala's neighbors Nicaragua and El Salvador. Honduras’ new president, Xiomara Castro, as a candidate also threatened to open ties to Beijing but but has since backtracked on the idea.
Giammattei, a law and order conservative, managed to bypass criticism in Washington and forge a productive relationship with the Trump administration by yielding to the White House's pressure to embrace an asylum agreement negotiated by his predecessor that he opposed when he ran for the presidency in 2019.
But he's struggled to build close ties to the Biden administration, which has sought to undo Trump's immigration policies and taken a harsher look at corruption and rule of law issues in the so-called “Norther Triangle” nations of Central America.
Biden didn't invite Giammattei to his Democracy summit last year and in June Vice President Kamala Harris, in a visit to Guatemala, described having a very frank conversation with the Guatemalan leader about the importance of maintaining an independent judiciary.
The shift toward a less independent justice system began before Giammattei took office but has continued on his watch.
Ballard will manage the account along with two associates with extensive ties to the Republican Party: Jose Diaz, a former Florida state representative who is a managing partner of Ballard’s office in Miami; and Sayfie, a one time adviser to former Florida Governor Jeb Bush who also headed the president’s commission on White House Fellowships during the Trump administration. A third associate representing Guatemala, John O’Hanlon, is a longtime Democrat.
Ballard amassed dozens of foreign and domestic lobbying clients during the Trump presidency — including Qatar, the Dominican Republic and Zimbabwe — when he was described by Politico as "The Most Powerful Lobbyist in Trump’s Washington.”
More recently, it has added a number of influential Democratic fundraisers and named former Congressman Robert Wexler, a Florida Democrat, as managing partner of its Washington office to bolster its credentials with the Biden White House.
Despite losing diplomatic allies to China, Taiwan has maintained robust ties with the U.S. and most other major nations. European politicians have visited the island in defiance of threats of retaliation from Beijing, and Taiwan has extended economic aid to Lithuania after China imposed an import ban on the Baltic nation for allowing Taiwan to open a representative office there under its own name.
AP writer Sonia Perez D. contributed to this report from Guatemala City.
Follow Goodman: @APJoshGoodman