Executives of the nonprofit advocacy group Engage Cuba, one of whom has taken credit for leading an "under-the-radar" $3 million national campaign to convince the Obama administration "to reform" U.S.-Cuba relations, are listed as registered agents of a for-profit travel service that shares the initials of the non-profit firm.
Engage Cuba is a nonprofit that advocates lifting the travel and trade embargo on Cuba. It was formed in 2015 after then-President Barack Obama's late-2014 diplomatic thaw with the communist island nation. Over the last few months, the group has released several reports and polls aimed at convincing Trump not to roll back any of Obama's looser rules on travel to and U.S. commerce with Cuba.
Supporters of Obama's Cuba détente—including the former president’s Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes, one of the lead architects of the policy—have cited Engage Cuba polls and reports over the last several years and in the lead-up to Trump’s partial rollback of his predecessor’s rapprochement.
The group, headed by James Williams, says on its website that its "funds are entirely dedicated to our advocacy efforts." The website also claims to have the "largest bipartisan lobbying operation working on U.S.-Cuba policy."
Under the heading of "access," the group says that it organizes trips and hosts events, "including briefings with U.S. and Cuban government officials."
"We navigate Cuban and U.S. regulations and facilitate customized trips to help organizations and businesses engage with Cuba," the website states.
The website does not mention that Williams and another top officials of Engage Cuba are involved in a for-profit entity that appears to be a travel service. Williams, along with Florida businessmen Ricardo Herrero and Ariel Pereda, are listed as registered agents for EC Travel & Services LLC, a company based in Coral Gables, Fla., in its article of incorporation records on the Florida Secretary of State's website. Pereda serves as the chairman for the Engage Cuba Business Council.
A credit report suggests that the "EC" in EC Travel & Services LLC stands for "Engage Cuba."
Under tax law, nonprofit groups may have affiliated for-profit entities as long as they do not provide an undisclosed private benefit to officials of the nonprofit organization.
Jan Baran, a partner at Wiley Rein who specializes in election law and government ethics, said there are many ways in which a for-profit entity can legally assist in a nonprofit's work such as if it provides a more cost-effective service such as travel without commission fees or at a reduced commission that other widely available commercial travel services do not provide.
"The issue is always whether or not there is some sort of benefit going to an officer of the group, usually in the way of payments" that does not serve the public-interest goals of the organization, Baran said.
The organization's 990—the IRS report all nonprofits are required to file annually—would be the starting point to scrutinize any payments Engage Cuba made to EC Travel & Services, Baran said.
A form 990 for Engage Cuba is not yet available on guidestar.org, a database for nonprofit information. A brief report on Engage Cuba on GuideStar said the IRS granted the group tax-exempt status in 2016. That means that the group has until November of this year to file a 990 with the IRS, Baran said.
Engage Cuba's press contact did not return multiple inquiries for comment or requests for its 990 form.
In bios posted on Engage Cuba's website, Williams has taken credit for playing a leading role in the campaign that resulted in Obama's historic policy shift with Cuba.
Williams is an "experienced public policy advocate and political strategist who assembled and led an under-the-radar $3 million national campaign to convince the Obama administration to reform U.S. Cuba relations," a bio on the Engage Cuba website originally stated when the group was formed.
"To achieve this unprecedented result, Williams built a coalition of civil society groups and business interests, running the advocacy effort more like a campaign than a traditional public policy organization and staying behind the scenes to maintain the focus on the policy issues at stake," the bio states.
That bio has been altered to remove the words "under the radar" and any references to "behind-the-scenes" as well as other details.
Before those changes were made, opponents of the Obama administration's effort to normalize relations with Cuba and some ethics watchdogs questioned the lack of transparency behind the multi-million dollar campaign that pushed for the historic thaw.
The critics asked why neither Williams, nor anyone at his firm at the time, the Trimpa Group, had registered to lobby on Cuba-related issues.
Two articles—one published in the September/October 2015 issue of Mother Jones, and another in the January 2015 edition of The Nation—detail the back-channel negotiations and behind-the-scenes lobbying campaign leading up to President Obama's December rapprochement to change five decades of U.S. policy and renew ties with the island nation.
Both reports gave the Trimpa Group, credit for an elaborate behind-the-scenes "lobbying" campaign that helped press the administration into action on Cuba. The Trimpa Group posted the Mother Jones article on its website.
A separate firm, Fierce Government Relations, filed one lobbying disclosure report for Engage Cuba in 2015, listing $70,000 in income for its lobbying for the second quarter of the year.
That sum did not cover any income the Trimpa Group received for its Cuba work this year or in 2014, leading up Obama's Cuba policy announcement in December.
Fierce Government Relations went on to lobby on behalf of Engage Cuba for all of 2015, 2016, and the first quarter of this year, reporting $500,000 in total lobbying income from the group. Last week, Baker and Hostetler, a major D.C. law and lobbying firm, also registered to lobby on behalf of Engage Cuba.
Experts on rules governing lobbying disclosure say there are so many loopholes and reporting requirements are so seldom enforced that it is nearly impossible to know whether Trimpa should have filed without information about whether they contacted or had meetings with administration officials or congressional offices.
If a person working on the Cuba campaign did not spend at least 20 percent of their time on that particular client or if they did not have more than two contacts with Congressional or administration officials, they could avoid registering to lobby, according to current law.
"It raises the question of what [the articles] meant by lobbying and what exactly did they do?" Baran said. "That does not mean they had to register to lobby under [the Lobbying Disclosure Act]. They could have done a lot of communications and they could have dealt with certain agencies and lower-level employees and that wouldn't trigger registration."
In mid-2015, Engage Cuba officials posted photos of Williams pictured with several U.S. officials, including Roberta Jacobson, the U.S. ambassador to Mexico who was serving as assistant secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere Affairs. At the time, Jacobson was charged with implementing Obama's Cuba policy changes. The photos were taken at an Engage Cuba launch party.
Other photos posted from the party show Sens. Mark Warner (D., Va.), Patrick Leahy (D., Vt.), Amy Klobuchar (D., Minn.), Jeff Flake (R., Ariz.), and Rep. Maxine Waters (D., Calif.), all of whom supported Obama’s Cuba policies, posing for photos and talking to other guests.
The photos do not necessarily depict any evidence of official lobbying but demonstrate the level of access that Engage Cuba had at the time.
Additionally, Engage Cuba hired Luis Miranda, who had recently left his position as Obama's director of Hispanic media, and, according to the Mother Jones article, sought the blessing of Jim Messina, Obama's then-deputy chief of staff, to launch the public campaign promoting a change in Cuba policy.
Miranda told the Washington Examiner in early 2016 that he only performed communications and strategic consulting work for the Cuba campaign. However, Democratic National Committee emails leaked by Wikileaks showed that he continued to advocate for Engage Cuba and tried to set up at least one meeting between the group and Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, (D., Fla.), while he was serving as DNC communications director.
Miranda was one of three top staffers who left the DNC shortly after the Wikileaks email dump.
In another Wikileaks email, Luke Albee, a senior adviser to Engage Cuba and a former chief of staff to Leahy and Warner, tried to encourage John Podesta, who was serving as Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign manager at the time, to come to the June 2015 launch party. He also suggested Podesta consider having Clinton come to Miami to deliver a speech supporting Obama’s Cuba thaw.
"John – I promise this will be a cool party worthy of someone like you – plus you can wear your best, cool summer shirt," Albee wrote.
"Have you guys thought about having HRC go give a Cuba speech in Miami? The numbers on Cuban Americans and where they are have shifted dramatically," he wrote. "We have commissioned a bunch of polls on this. She would be seen as future oriented,[sic] :"brave" even though she wouldn't be brave to do this. ..and it would drive Rubio Cruz and other [sic] nuts."
"We could help on this on many fronts. Either way, we would be thrilled if you and Mary could drop by on Tuesday," he added.
Podesta wrote back: "Kind of like the Miami idea."
Five days later, after Podesta apparently raised the issue of Clinton delivering a speech in Miami during a Clinton campaign conference call, Clinton campaign adviser Jake Sullivan emailed Podesta and said: "I love this. Was cheering on mute when you raised this morning."
Six months later, Clinton delivered a speech in Miami in which she wholeheartedly backed Obama's efforts to normalize relations.
Update 8:24 a.m.: This post has been updated with more information