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El Salvador kept paying DC lobbyist after claim he was fired

In this image take from UNTV video, Nayib Armando Bukele, President of El Salvador, speaks in a pre-recorded video message during the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, at U.N. headquarters in New York. (UNTV via AP)
In this image take from UNTV video, Nayib Armando Bukele, President of El Salvador, speaks in a pre-recorded video message during the 75th session of the United Nations General Assembly, Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020, at U.N. headquarters in New York. (UNTV via AP) (Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

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.

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Follow Goodman on Twitter: @APJoshGoodman