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Cuba Lobbying Groups Trade Barbs

Tax Filing at Center of Dispute Over the Many Faces of an Anti-Castro Operative

A tax filing for an anti-Fidel Castro foundation has given some of the group’s opponents, who favor opening relations with Cuba, a new avenue of attack.

Opponents of Cuba Democracy Advocates, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, say the group is inappropriately subsidizing the lobbying activities of an affiliated entity. But CDA’s executive director, Mauricio Claver-Carone, said groups that take a different view on U.S. policy with Cuba simply are searching for creative ways to discredit the foundation as well as its lobbying arm, Cuba Democracy Public Advocacy Corp., and its political action committee.

“People are always looking and pointing the finger at us,” Claver-Carone said.

As the Congressional debate over U.S.-Cuba policy heats up, groups on both sides say the issue is intensely personal, and they are criticizing the salaries and corporate backing of their opponents.

The tax filing, which recently was made public and covers the year 2005, showed that the charitable foundation CDA paid Claver-Carone a salary of $100,008 for 35 hours of work per week, but the filing indicated that the organization engaged in no lobbying activities to “attempt to influence any national, state or local legislation.”

Claver-Carone is registered to lobby for the Cuba Democracy Public Advocacy Corp., and he says he is paid a small amount by that group but does much of the lobbying and all of the PAC work on a volunteer basis because he believes in the issues passionately. For the first half of last year, the Cuba Democracy Public Advocacy Corp. reported spending $11,544 on lobbying.

But three lobbyists who are affiliated with groups opposing Claver-Carone’s and would speak only on background said he is regularly on Capitol Hill lobbying and that the lines between the charity, the lobbying arm and the PAC are blurry. And the liberal ethics watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission against Claver-Carone’s organization, saying the charity is improperly funding the lobbying activities of its affiliates.

The foundation’s tax filing also lists Carlos Gutierrez Jr., son of the current Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, as one of five directors for the foundation. But Claver-Carone said that Gutierrez Jr. has since stepped down.

“Even though he’s free in his own way to do what he wants, since he’s the son of the secretary, he thought it wouldn’t be appropriate to be a part of it any longer,” Claver-Carone said. The senior Gutierrez donated to the group’s PAC before he joined the Bush administration, whose policy is in line with Claver-Carone’s groups.

Al Fox, who runs the Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy, which is on the other side of Claver-Carone’s organizations, said the Cuba issue often is “about money, vengeance and pride.”

Fox, who supports trade and open diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba, added that he has not drawn a salary from the alliance in eight years. “I am always accused by the extremists that I’m a charlatan and I do this just for the money,” said Fox, who ran an unsuccessful campaign for Congress last year in Florida.

Brett Kappel, a lobbying and campaign finance expert with Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease, said that Congress — especially the Senate Finance and House Ways and Means committees — is examining the issue of tax-exempt organizations and their lobbying activities.

Those committees, he said, have held “extensive hearings on charitable organizations and the misuse of their tax-exempt status” and issued a report on disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff’s “misuse of tax-exempt organizations in his lobbying schemes.”

But Claver-Carone said he does all of his lobbying for Cuba Democracy Public Advocacy Corp., which is a 501(c)(4) organization, and for the charitable foundation he does “general advocacy,” not lobbying.

“We have a [501](c)(4), which is allowed to do unlimited lobbying, in order to keep the lines clear,” he said.

He said that any work he does for the U.S. Cuba Democracy PAC is strictly volunteer. “It doesn’t take place until after hours,” he said. “That is all personal volunteer hours.”

In the previous election cycle, the PAC gave out more than $500,000 to a long list of candidates and Members, including current Sens. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) as well as Reps. Albio Sires (D-N.J.), John Salazar (D-Colo.), Ted Poe (R-Texas) and Candice Miller (R-Mich.).

Claver-Carone said the ethics questions about the three entities he is involved with take the focus away from his mission. On Monday “an individual, a lawyer in Cuba, was sentenced to prison for 12 years for writing ‘down with Fidel Castro’ on a wall,” he said.

Congressional advocates for opening up relations with Cuba such as Ways and Means Chairman Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.) and Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), he added, “are telling other Members that it’s getting better, while it’s just so clear that things are getting worse in Cuba. These are my people. You do this because it’s a true human story. It’s about life or death. It’s about human rights.”

He said his opponents are funded by companies, particularly in the agriculture sector, that want to do business in Cuba. “My Christmas wish is not to have to lobby anymore,” he said. “But when Members present amendments on Cuban sanctions then I’ll have to lobby on that.”

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