Ecuadorian president’s alleged Florida real estate ties raise questions

Think tank report links Guillermo Lasso to more than 130 properties across Miami area

Jul.July 12, 2021 07:00 AM

Guillermo Lasso and the Asia Brickell Key condo in Miami

The South Florida real estate market’s reputation as a magnet for dirty money has made unwelcome headlines around the globe, from Venezuela to Russia. That reputation may now have caused a stir at Ecuador’s presidential palace.

Guillermo Lasso, a businessman and banker who became Ecuador’s 47th president this May, is the subject of a report scrutinizing his real estate deals in the Sunshine State. Entities tied to Lasso amassed roughly 130 properties across Miami-Dade and Broward counties for $33 million since 2009.

The purchases, mostly condominium units and townhouses, were made through limited liability companies, long used as a mechanism to preserve anonymity. But the ties to Lasso were revealed in a March report by the Center for Policy and Economic Research, a think tank based in Washington, D.C.

CEPR’s report showed how the LLCs were first managed by one of Lasso’s sons and two directors at a Panamanian bank with links to Lasso. Supporters of Lasso have dismissed the report as being politically motivated.

Over the years, most of the buying entities were reorganized in a way that removed Lasso’s son and the Panamanian bank directors as managers and merged the LLCs into new ones, according to CEPR. The new entities are managed by other LLCs, incorporated in Delaware, which does not require the disclosure of LLCs’ owners and managers.

In 2017, Ecuador passed a referendum banning elected officials from owning offshore assets in tax havens. While Florida is not listed as one of the banned havens, the law also prohibits investment in low-tax jurisdictions, which are addressed on a case-by-case basis.

Lasso’s real estate links to South Florida are “not inherently illegal,” said Jake Johnston, a CEPR senior researcher who wrote the report. “This is saying that this should be investigated, really, or looked into further.”

There is no evidence of wrongdoing by the alleged Lasso-linked LLCs’ property purchases. But the connections the think tank draws again highlight the South Florida’s property market’s appeal to wealthy Latin Americans.

Federal authorities in 2018 sought to seize properties in two separate alleged $1 billion Venezuelan money laundering and currency exchange schemes. One case involved the country’s state oil company, PDVSA, and the other accused a Venezuelan TV mogul of bribing officials. Among the properties was a condo at Dezer Development’s glitzy Porsche Design Tower in Sunny Isles Beach. Several of the PDVSA executives and a Swiss banker charged in that case have been sentenced.

In the Lasso matter, the entities sold roughly a dozen properties for $6.3 million. In one of the bigger deals, Deblen USA I LLC, still led by the Panamanian bank directors, bought a half-acre property just outside Coral Gables for $1.5 million in 2017 and built a six-bedroom house there two years later, records show. The LLC sold the home last year for $5 million but loaned $2.25 million to the buyer, which suggests an ongoing relationship. 

There is no clear record of divestment from the majority of the real estate, the think tank noted. The Real Deal’s analysis of property records did not reveal any deeds or transfers of ownership interest in the LLCs.

Instead, the merger of the LLCs into new ones was “a consolidation process,” Johnston said.

“The actual assets don’t change hands. It’s just changing the name of the company that is owning these properties,” he said. “That is why I say it’s still linked, because it’s not like these properties were sold to anybody else. The same people who owned that before, own that now.”

Emails as well as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter messages sent to Lasso and his representatives were not returned.

Organized for obscurity

Florida allows for the beneficiary of an LLC to remain anonymous, making it difficult to establish Lasso as the true owner of the properties.

A federal push for more transparency came this year when Congress overrode former President Donald Trump’s veto of the Corporate Transparency Act. That act, which aims to stop the illicit flow of cash into U.S. real estate, requires disclosure of the true owners of shell companies to the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, although the buyers do not have to be disclosed to the public.

The reorganization of the allegedly Lasso-linked LLCs also leaves open the question of whether the Ecuadorian president meant to further obscure his ties or correctly transfer control of the assets before he assumed office.

The answers depend on who you ask.

Stanley Langbein, a law professor at the University of Miami, said he is not familiar with CEPR but that it draws “strong connections” between the LLCs and Lasso.

Guillermo E. Lasso — who CEPR says is Lasso’s son Guillermo Enrique Lasso — and the two bank directors initially listed as managers likely were “nominal owners,” Langbein said after reviewing data outlining the LLCs’ purchases and reorganization at TRDs request.

Langbein speculated that they stepped down as managers because “there was some reason why they feared exposure at those points, and they wanted additional levels of protection.”

Generally speaking, installing a Delaware-registered LLC to manage another LLC is a way to obscure ownership, according to Lawrence Kellogg, a founding partner at law firm Levine Kellogg Lehman Schneider + Grossman.

Lasso’s former career as a top banker — he still has ties to one of the country’s biggest banks, Banco Guayaquil, through one of his sons — means he likely had the means to buy the properties. Still, Kellogg said, questions remain.

“Was he entitled to the money from the bank? Did he pay taxes on the money that he was supposed to pay?” Kellogg asked. “It may not be money laundering, but it may not be legal, either.”

Lasso told his Creating Opportunities center-right party in a 2016 interview that he declares all his income and is “one of the biggest taxpayers in Ecuador.”

Lasso went on to say “there is one active business,” the Banisi bank in Panama. Because he was a private citizen at the time, he had the right to develop businesses outside Ecuador, but laws prohibit someone linked to a bank from opening a business in the country, he added.

“There is nothing strange or dark or that I can’t explain without absolute transparency,” Lasso added at the time.

An April 30 Panama Superintendency of Banks record lists his son Santiago Lasso Alcivar as president of Banisi. Euvenia Touriz and Miguel Macias, who managed the LLCs that bought the real estate and signed some of the records that merged the entities into new LLCs, are listed as directors.

Eduardo Gamarra, a professor of political science at Florida International University, said he is unfamiliar with possible Lasso real estate investments in South Florida. But they would not be surprising in view of Lasso’s business experience and would not necessarily be illegal, he said.

The CEPR report seems to point to Lasso as doing the right thing by moving away from the alleged properties, Gamarra said. He cited the shift in ownership of LLCs away from Lasso’s family as a possible means of divesting. 

“It’s a form of saying, ‘I don’t own these assets,’” Gamarra, who interviewed Lasso in 2017 for a project on Latin American politics, said. But whether Lasso has done so to the full extent of Ecuadorian law is unclear. 

Though he did not challenge the accuracy of the report’s data, Gamarra alleged that the report was politically motivated. The think tank disclosed that Lasso’s opponent in the April runoff, Andrés Arauz, previously worked there as a senior research fellow, although Arauz’s employment started in 2019 and CEPR first reported on the real estate ties two years prior.

In a statement, CEPR called the allegation “absurd.”

“By Gamarra’s logic, any reporting or investigation into a scandal involving a candidate campaigning for public office would be considered politically motivated, including any of the near-countless investigations into Donald Trump’s business dealings, property holdings, or tax filings during the 2016 and 2020 campaigns,” the think tank said in a statement.

“Voters in every country should be able to know the business interests, domestic or foreign, of candidates for higher office — and if those candidates have used corporate anonymity and accounting tricks to avoid contributing their fair share to the country they seek to govern.”

Ties that bind

From 2009 to 2010, Nora Investment US bought 59 residential properties for $5.7 million in Oakland Park, Miramar, Pembroke Pines, Sunrise and Fort Lauderdale, property records show.

Thirteen more Nora Investment LLCs purchased 79 more residential properties for $21 million in Doral, Coconut Creek, Margate, Oakland Park, Lauderdale Lakes and Miami.

Guillermo E. Lasso, as well as Touriz and Macias, were temporary managers of the Nora LLCs, although for two of the entities only Touriz and Macias were managers, according to the Florida Division of Corporations.

In 2013, an entity titled Malena US bought a $975,000 unit at the Asia condominium in Miami’s Brickell neighborhood, and Malena Uno US bought a $970,000 unit there. Touriz and Macias manage both entities, state corporate records show.

Guillermo E. Lasso stepped down as manager of the Nora groups in August 2014, and Touriz and Macias did so as well in 2020, records show.

Nora Investment US was merged into Broward One LLC, while some of the other Nora groups were merged into Broward Two LLC and yet others merged into Doral LLC. Macias signed merger documents, and Delaware-registered Freedom Management LLC took over as manager of the new entities.

Twitter messages to Guillermo Enrique Lasso, Facebook messages to Touriz and LinkedIn messages to Macias went unanswered. 

Langbein, the UM law professor, said one of the things that struck him is that much of the real estate is in unusual locations for foreign investment.

“Offshore people who are parking money in South Florida real estate are buying condos on the beach, in Sunny Isles and places like that,” he said. The purchases in this case “are in places like inland Fort Lauderdale. So they are parking in places where nobody would suspect,” he said.

But Harold Edward Patricoff Jr., a Shutts & Bowen litigator who works on cross-border disputes, said the volume of real estate allegedly linked to Lasso is not significant and the switch to Delaware-managed LLCs does not point to anything nefarious.

“The move could signal or hint that something is being done, but I would think it in and of itself is not enough to draw negative conclusions that someone is trying to hide ownership of assets,” he said.

A more pressing issue, Patricoff said, is bad optics — if LLCs allegedly tied to Lasso continue to buy property.

“I think it sends the wrong message,” he said. “One would think the president and other high-ranking public officials would want to invest their capital in their own country if they really believed in the economy and the strength of their own country.” 

Jordan Pandy contributed reporting.


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