Lobbyists for Honduras are working to reassure US policymakers about the government’s response to the COVID-19 epidemic amid lingering allegations of corruption.
Leonel Teller-Sanchez, a registered agent for Honduras via Gus West Government Affairs, promoted President Juan Orlando Hernandez‘s promise to crack down on questionable spending earlier this month, according to a new lobbying filing with the Department of Justice. The president’s remarks were shared via a tweet directed at key members of Congress and the Donald Trump administration.
The push comes as transparency advocates in Honduras are raising concerns that the government may have bought overpriced mobile hospitals to deal with the virus from a US intermediary in Orlando, ELMED Medical Systems. A recent audit from the local branch of Transparency International faulted the government management organization, Honduras Strategic Investment, for rushing into multi-million dollar contracts without due diligence.
The government of Honduras “has presented no evidence that it seriously consulted with medical experts before spending $47.5 million to acquire tent-style mobile hospitals,” Transparency International said earlier this month. To date the impoverished country has seen almost 40,000 cases and more than 1,100 deaths.
In the statement shared by Gus West Government Affairs, President Hernandez said his government had invited scrutiny from Transparency International and other organizations.
“We will not allow anyone to mess around with the health and well-being of the people,” Hernandez said. “I am being loud and clear: To all public officials or businesses that pretend to take advantage of the emergency by abusing this tragedy, my government will not tolerate such acts and we will make sure that if it happens, justice will be served at a court of law.”
Honduras has long been plagued by allegations of corruption that could threaten US support. Last year a New York jury convicted the president’s brother, Juan Antonio Hernandez, in a drug trafficking case that described the president as a co-conspirator.
President Hernandez has responded by decrying the allegations as lies coming from drug traffickers angry at his efforts to combat. So far the State Department has stood by his government, applauding its passage of a law that makes it easier to intercept planes suspected of transporting drugs earlier this year.
“The outcry is equally strong to stop the other virus: corruption.”Father German Calix, Caritas Honduras
But corruption tied to the COVID-19 epidemic risks overshadowing the country’s perceived progress on narco-trafficking. This spring Catholic charity Caritas Honduras called for a probe into allegations that medical supplies were being bought at inflated prices and food aid was only being distributed to members of the ruling party.
“It’s a popular outcry to stop the COVID-19 pandemic,” German Calix, director of Caritas Honduras, told the Catholic News Service in May. “But the outcry is equally strong to stop the other virus: corruption, which has produced so much damage in our society and is one of the causes of poverty in Honduras.”
COVID-19 aid to the region is also under scrutiny in Washington.
Earlier this year, the Trump administration informed Congress of plans to provide 7,582 ventilators to up to 40 countries at a cost of more than $200 million as part of its relief efforts. The president singled out Honduras in a tweet.
Just spoke to President Juan Orlando Hernandez of the Republic of Honduras. We work closely together on the Southern Border. Will be helping him with his request for Ventilators and Testing.— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 24, 2020
Some public health critics however said low-income countries have much higher priorities for their health systems. Last month, Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a target of Gus West Government Affairs’ advocacy, wrote to Acting Administrator John Barsa of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) raising questions about White House interference in the COVID-19 aid.
“I am concerned that the [National Security Council]’s influence on these decisions both circumvents longstanding USAID procurement and accountability policies and interjects political agendas into how USAID allocates it Global Health and Emergency Reserve Fund resources,” Menendez wrote.
Gus West Government Affairs has represented Honduras since 2016. Its current contract is for $55,000 a month.
In addition to Leonel Teller-Sanchez, the other registered agents on the account are owner and CEO Gus West and consultant Richard Hernandez. Neither Teller-Sanchez nor West responded to requests for comment.