Tens of millions of properties in Florida linked to Ecuadorian presidential candidate Guillermo Lasso
In March 2017, ahead of Ecuador’s second-round presidential election, CEPR reported that Florida-based shell companies linked to then-candidate Guillermo Lasso owned 144 properties in Broward and Miam counties. Dade, valued at over $ 30 million. In that election, voters approved a referendum banning politicians and officials from holding assets in tax havens and giving them one year to cede or transfer their assets. Although Florida is not on the list of tax havens, it is considered a “low tax jurisdiction,” which authorities will manage on a case-by-case basis.
Four years later, Ecuador is heading again for a presidential runoff ballot, with Lasso on the ballot. While additional layers of anonymity have been introduced to further obscure ownership, a review of business and real estate records in Florida shows that the holdings of Lasso-related shell companies have increased since 2017, raising questions about the legality of Lasso’s candidacy. Ironically, Lasso is competing in the second round of the April 11 poll against Andrés Arauz, one of the first architects of tax haven reforms in Ecuador.
From CEPR 2017 report:
In 2009, according to the Florida Corporations Division, Guillermo E. Lasso – the candidate’s son – registered an LLC in Florida called Nora Investment US. From June 2009 to December 2010, the holding company bought 59 properties, which it still owns today, in Broward County, Florida, according to publicly available documents. Purchases, mainly condos, totaled $ 5.7 million.
But that was just the start. In 2011, two new directors were added to Nora Investment US: Miguel Macias and Euvenia Touriz. Both were previously officials of Banco Guayaquil, and both are currently listed as directors of Banisi Bank in Panama, which is owned by Lasso. From 2011 to 2013, Lasso (the candidate’s son), Macias and Touriz registered 10 LLCs in Florida in which they are all listed as directors. The additional LLCs were also used to purchase properties in Florida.
In August 2014, following Ecuador’s implementation of the new offshore asset regulations, Lasso’s son’s name was systematically removed as director of the 10 companies, according to public records. But Macias and Touriz continued to open additional holding companies. It’s important to note that while LLCs list directors, the so-called beneficial owner – or true owner – is hidden.
In June 2017, Macias and Touriz – Lasso partners of former shell companies and banks – were listed as executives of a newly formed shell company, DEBLEN USA 1, LLC. Two months later, the company bought a luxury home in Miami for $ 1.475 million. There is no evidence of a mortgage, which suggests the purchase was likely made in cash. As of 2018, however, Macias and Touriz appeared to be systematically removed from their positions as executives of the vast majority of corporate records of shell companies.
In 2020, most of the previously identified shell companies have undergone a myriad of changes: deactivations, reactivations, resignations of directors, name changes, mergers and dissolutions. Many companies have had their names changed within a week of their dissolution. All but four of the landholding companies associated with Lasso have now been merged into new entities. In total, we identified 23 active companies registered in Florida, including DEBLEN USA 1, mentioned above, associated with Lasso business associates.
For example, in 2016, “BILL INVESTMENT CINCO US, LLC,” with Macias and Touriz on the executive roster, purchased a home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida for $ 2.2 million. The owner of this home is now listed as “LOCAL EQUITY THREE LLC”. Company records show Macias signed documents authorizing the merger of a number of older shell companies into LOCAL EQUITY THREE LLC and a handful of other companies. But instead of Macias, the director of the company is listed as “DIRECT MANAGEMENT LLC”. On some of the other companies, the manager is listed as “FREEDOM MANAGEMENT LLC”. Instead of individuals, the only leaders of these newly created companies are additional front companies. Each of the amalgamated companies now lists one of these two companies as a manager.
“DIRECT MANAGEMENT LLC” and “FREEDOM MANAGEMENT LLC” are registered in Delaware, another jurisdiction known for its corporate secrecy. Interestingly, the Delaware corporation records reveal that these two corporations were formed on the same date: December 18, 2017. The Florida corporate reorganization began shortly thereafter.
Although Lasso’s associates no longer appear in the company’s records, there is no doubt that the actual owner of the properties remains unchanged. Of the 144 properties owned by the companies in 2017, 10 were sold and 16 still list the original shell company as the owner. For the remaining properties, if the owner’s name has changed, the actual owner has not. Here, it is important to clarify that, as is the case with shell companies, the real “beneficial owner” of the asset remains entirely secret.
Two of the Lasso-related shells made new real estate purchases in 2020: BRICKELL ONE LLC and BRICKELL TWO LLC. Florida Real Estate Registers show that the first, BRICKELL ONE, is itself the result of the merger of four different front companies: NORA INVESTMENT CINCO, NORA INVESTMENT SEIS, NORA INVESTMENT SIETE and NORA INVESTMENT NUEVE. The first purchase was for a $ 665,000 condo in April 2020. The second took place in October 2020.
Shell company BRICKELL ONE LLC paid $ 1.25 million late last fall for an apartment in Coral Gables. The Miami-Dade real estate appraiser valued the house as being worth only $ 734,894 in 2020. Interestingly, the seller of this house was Miguel Macias, who had purchased the house in January 2016 for $ 900,000. This raises additional questions. For example, why would a shell company Macias previously have managed and then bought a house from him for well above face market value?
The most significant real estate transaction, however, involved DEBLEN USA 1 LLC in 2017, purchase of the luxury home in Miami. In August 2020, just three years after the purchase, the house sold for $ 5 million. Oddly enough, the shell company provided the buyer with a mortgage of $ 2.25 million. DEBLEN is not the only company to have entered the mortgage industry. GLOBAL EQUITY SEVEN LLC, according to Florida records, is currently the lender of seven mortgages totaling $ 1.2 million. It appears that shell companies have gone from being a simple owner of real estate to being a direct lender in the state of Florida.
Overall, as shown in Table 1 above, we identified 136 properties owned by shell companies associated with Lasso. It is certainly possible that there are others who remain hidden. Together, the identified individuals have a current assessed market value of $ 33 million, according to Miami-Dade and Broward County property records. In addition, the currently active shell companies hold $ 3.45 million in mortgages.
Although Guillermo Lasso’s name does not appear directly on any of South Florida’s corporate or real estate records, the involvement of family members and close associates, as well as the recent moves towards even greater anonymity, raise concerns. certainly questions about the candidate’s involvement. Relations with Florida are far from the only questions, however.
Last fall, Arauz’s Union for Hope (UNES) party challenged the legality of Lasso’s candidacy based on legislation implemented following the 2017 referendum on tax havens. updated electoral law prevents anyone with assets in a tax haven from running for public office. the complaint cited a 2017 investigation in the Argentinian Pagina / 12 newspaper that documented Lasso’s ties to dozens of shell companies and a Panamanian bank.
In 2017, Lasso admitted that he was the owner of the Banisi SA bank. Nevertheless, the CNE dismissed the complaint. The bank continues to operate today with Macias and Touriz listed as directors as well as two of Lasso’s sons. Banisi has a capital totaling $60.4 million, according to the Panamanian superintendency of banks.
One thing has not changed since 2017: the media – international and Ecuadorian – are completely ignorant Lasso’s offshore financial holdings. In April 2017, the State Superintendent of Ecuador for Information and Communication fined seven media $ 3,750 each for failing to report on the Pagina / 12 investigation. In the years that followed, the current President of Ecuador, Lenín Moreno, was also implicated in the use of tax havens in the supposedly INA papers scandal. Moreno has denied any wrongdoing. Although Moreno ran against Lasso in 2017, he appears to favor the Banker over Arauz in 2021.
Disclaimer: Andrés Arauz was previously employed as Senior Research Fellow at CEPR.
This first appeared on CEPR America Blog.