ThourThe South Florida property market’s reputation as a magnet for dirty money has been the subject of unwanted headlines around the world. from Venezuela to Russia… This reputation may have now caused a stir in the presidential palace in Ecuador.
Guillermo Lasso, a businessman and banker who became the 47th president of Ecuador in May this year, is the subject of a report detailing his real estate transactions in the Sunshine State. Lasso-affiliated organizations have amassed nearly 130 properties in Miami-Dade and Broward counties for $ 33 million since 2009.
The purchases, mostly condominiums and townhouses, were made through limited liability companies that have long been used as a mechanism to maintain anonymity. But the Lasso connection was revealed in a March report from the Center for Political and Economic Research, a Washington, DC-based think tank.
A CEPR report revealed that the LLC was initially run by one of Lasso’s sons and two directors at a Panamanian bank associated with Lasso. Lasso supporters dismissed the report as politically motivated.
Over the years, according to the CEPR, most of the purchasing companies have been reorganized in such a way that Lasso’s son and the directors of Panamanian banks were removed from their managerial positions and merged into new ones. The new entities are managed by other Delaware-incorporated LLCs, which does not require disclosure of LLC owners and managers.
In 2017, Ecuador held a referendum banning elected officials from owning offshore assets in tax havens. While Florida is not listed as one of the prohibited harbors, the law also prohibits investments in low tax jurisdictions, which are considered on a case-by-case basis.
Lasso’s ties to South Florida real estate “are not inherently illegal,” said Jake Johnston, a senior fellow at CEPR who wrote the report. “This suggests that it really should be investigated or studied further.”
There is no evidence of misconduct in the purchase of the property by the alleged LLC Lasso. But the connections the think tank is making are again highlighting the appeal of the South Florida real estate market to wealthy Latinos.
In 2018, federal authorities tried to seize property in two separate $ 1 billion worth of Venezuelan money laundering and currency exchange schemes. One case involved the country’s state oil company, PDVSA, while another accused the Venezuelan tele-tycoon of bribing officials. Among the properties was a condominium in Dezer Development’s luxurious Porsche Design Tower in Sunny Isles Beach. Several PDVSA executives and a Swiss banker charged in the case have been convicted.
In the Lasso case, the companies sold about a dozen properties for $ 6.3 million. In one of the largest deals, Deblen USA I LLC, which is still headed by directors of Panamanian banks, bought a half-acre site near Coral Gables in 2017 for $ 1.5 million and two years later built a house there with six bedrooms, as the records show. The LLC sold the house last year for $ 5 million but lent the buyer $ 2.25 million, which signals an ongoing relationship.
The analytical center noted that there is no clear data on the sale of most of the real estate. The real dealAnalysis of the property records did not reveal any transactions or transfers of ownership to the LLC.
Instead, the merger of the LLC into new ones was a “consolidation process,” Johnston said.
“Actual assets do not change hands. It’s just a change in the name of the company that owns this property, ”he said. “That’s why I say it’s still related because it doesn’t look like these properties have been sold to anyone else. The same people who owned it before, own it now. “
Emails, as well as Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter messages sent by Lasso and his representatives have not been returned.
Organized for obscurity
Florida allows the LLC beneficiary to remain anonymous, making it difficult to establish Lasso as the true owner of the property.
A federal push for greater transparency came this year when Congress overturned former President Donald Trump’s veto of the Corporate Transparency Act. Aimed at stopping the illicit flow of cash into U.S. real estate, this law requires the true owners of shell companies to be disclosed to the Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, although customer information is not required.
The reorganization of the LLCs allegedly linked to Lasso also leaves open the question of whether the President of Ecuador intended to further hide his connections or correctly transfer control of the assets prior to taking 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 he is forging a “strong bond” between LLC and Lasso.
Guillermo E. Lasso, whom CEPR refers to as Lasso’s son Guillermo Enrique Lasso, and the two bank directors originally listed as managers were likely “nominee owners,” Langbein said after analyzing data describing LLC purchases and reorganizations. TRD‘request.
Langbein suggested that they stepped down as managers because “there was a reason why they were afraid of being exposed at these moments, and they needed an extra layer of protection.”
According to Lawrence Kellogg, founding partner of the law firm Levine Kellogg Lehman Schneider + Grossman, setting up a Delaware-registered LLC to manage another LLC is a way to hide ownership.
Lasso’s former career as a lead banker – he is still connected with one of the largest banks in the country Banco Guayaquil through one of his sons – which means he probably had the funds to buy real estate. Still, questions remain, Kellogg said.
“Was he entitled to money from the bank? Did he pay taxes on the money he had to pay? Kellogg asked. “It may not be money laundering, but it can also be illegal.”
Lasso told his center-right Creation of Opportunity party in a 2016 interview that he declares all of his income and is “one of the largest taxpayers in Ecuador.”
Lasso went on to say that “there is one active business” – Banisi Bank in Panama. Since he was a private individual at the time, he had the right to develop business outside Ecuador, but the laws prohibit persons associated with the bank from starting a business in the country, he added.
“There is nothing strange, dark or that I cannot explain without absolute transparency,” Lasso added then.
A report from the Panama Banks Authority dated April 30 indicated that his son Santiago Lasso Alquivar is the President of Banisi. Evvenia Turis and Miguel Macias, who managed the LLC that bought the property and signed some of the documents that merged these businesses into new LLCs, are listed as directors.
Eduardo Gamarra, professor of political science at Florida International University, said he was not familiar with possible investments in Lasso real estate in South Florida. But they won’t be surprising given Lasso’s business background, and they won’t necessarily be illegal, he said.
The CEPR report appears to indicate that Lasso did the right thing in ditching the alleged property, Gamarra said. He referred to the transfer of ownership of the LLC from the Lasso family as a possible means of sale.
“This is a form of expression, ‘I do not own these assets,’ said Gamarra, who interviewed Lasso in 2017 for a project on Latin American politics. But it is unclear whether Lasso has fully complied with Ecuadorian law.
While he did not dispute the accuracy of the report’s data, Gamarra argued that the report was politically motivated. The think tank reported that Lasso’s opponent in the second round of April, Andres Arauz, previously worked there as a senior research fellow, although Arauz began working in 2019, and CEPR first reported real estate ties two years earlier.
In a statement, the CEPR called the accusation “absurd.”
“According to Gamarra’s logic, any report or investigation into a scandal involving a campaign for a public office would be considered politically motivated, including any of the nearly countless investigations into Donald Trump’s business transactions, property ownership, or tax returns during 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 whether these candidates have used corporate anonymity and accounting tricks to avoid contributing their fair share of the country they seek to govern.”
The bonds 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 LLC companies have acquired 79 more residential properties for $ 21 million in Doral, Coconut Creek, Margate, Oakland Park, Lauderdale Lakes and Miami.
Guillermo E. Lasso and Turis and Macias were interim managers of Nora LLC, although according to the Florida division of corporations, only Turis and Macias were managers of two of them.
In 2013, an organization called Malena US bought an apartment for $ 975,000 in the Asia condominium in Brickell, Miami, and Malena Uno US bought an apartment there for $ 970,000. Turis and Macias operate both businesses, data from the state corporation show.
Guillermo E. Lasso stepped down as manager of Nora in August 2014, and Turis and Macias also left in 2020, reports show.
Nora Investment US was merged with Broward One LLC, while some of Nora’s other groups were merged into Broward Two LLC and some into Doral LLC. Macias signed the merger documents and Freedom Management LLC, incorporated in Delaware, became the new venture manager.
Twitter messages from Guillermo Enrique Lasso, Facebook messages to Turizu, and LinkedIn messages to Macias went unanswered.
Langbein, a professor of law at UM, said one of the things that struck him was that most of the real estate is located in unusual locations for foreign investment.
“Offshore companies that are saving money for real estate in South Florida are buying apartments on the beach, in Sunny Isles and similar places,” he said. Shopping in this case “is done in places like inner Fort Lauderdale. So they parked where no one would have suspected, ”he said.
But Harold Edward Patrickoff Jr., a Shutts & Bowen forensic specialist who handles international disputes, said the volume of real estate allegedly linked to Lasso is not significant and the move to Delaware-managed LLCs does not indicate anything nefarious.
“This move may signal or hint that something is being done, but I think that by itself is not enough to draw negative conclusions that someone is trying to hide ownership of the assets,” he said.
The more pressing issue is poor optics – if the LLCs allegedly linked to Lasso continue to buy properties, Patrickoff said.
“I think this is the wrong signal,” he said. “One would think that the president and other senior government officials would want to invest in their country if they truly believe in their country’s economy and strength.”
Jordan Pandy provided the reportage.