The Miami Herald
Wed, Nov. 29, 2006

Complaint filed against Cuban lobbying group

A watchdog group in Washington has filed a complaint against a Cuban-American lobbying group, which called the allegation a 'political hit job.'


WASHINGTON - A watchdog group has alleged a Cuban-American lobbying organization that favors tougher sanctions against Cuba broke Federal Election Commission regulations by having illegal links to a nonprofit group.

But the U.S.-Cuba Democracy Political Action Committee denied the allegations and noted that the watchdog Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, which has filed several complaints against it, has received donations from groups opposed to U.S. sanctions on the island.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics filed a complaint in September asserting that several members of the nonprofit Cuba Democracy Advocates Inc. had illegal links to the PAC, which is supposed to operate independently of any other organization.

Leopoldo Fernández Pujals founded two nonprofit U.S. organizations in 2000 to oppose the communist government, using some of the proceeds of his $366 million sale of Spanish fast-food chain Telepizza in 1999, according to the FEC complaint.

Those two organizations eventually became Cuba Democracy Advocates, and Fernández appointed Mauricio Claver-Carone as director and Miami-Dade car dealer Gus Machado as treasurer. Machado then went on to create the PAC and Claver-Carone became its Washington director.

Claver-Carone and Machado, according to the complaint to the FEC, have ''day-to-day operational control'' of both the PAC and Cuba Democracy Advocates.


According to FEC rules, a connected PAC can only raise money from its affiliated organization, but the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC has raised $1.25 million from 3,000 individuals, mostly members of the Cuban-American community.

The group has donated to dozens of lawmakers on both sides of the aisle and is widely seen as successfully influencing congressional votes on Cuba sanctions.

Claver-Carone denied the two organizations had done anything wrong, noting that the PAC is run by a 26-member board and a seven-member executive committee, most of whom have no connection with Cuba Democracy Advocates.

''So long as majority of board members do not cross over, there's absolutely no problem whatsoever,'' he told The Miami Herald. ``Of the 26 board members, only one crosses over, and that's me.''

Claver-Carone said the latest complaint is the fourth filed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics against his organization, constituting what he called a ``political hit job.''


''They're getting money from people that advocate against us,'' he said, citing a $75,000 donation to the watchdog group by the ARCA Foundation, a family-owned foundation, which says on its website that it pursues more social justice and equity. The ARCA group also has donated to groups like the Latin America Working Group and the Lexington Institute -- all opposed to U.S. policies on Cuba.

The FEC decided against prosecuting the group's previous allegations. Claver-Carone says refuting each allegation means paying a law firm between $15,000 and $20,000.

Melanie Sloan, the executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics, denied the group is targeting the Cuba Democracy PAC for political reasons.

''We believe they should follow FEC law,'' she said.