China-backed DeSantis donor hires top GOP lobbyist, foreign ties not disclosed

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A Tampa refrigerant company with direct Chinese backing was publicly disclosed as a new client of top lobbyist Brian Ballard five days after the Miami Herald revealed that the company had been a major political donor to Ron DeSantis and other Florida Republicans.

But despite the fact that the company, iGas USA, is partially owned by a state-controlled Chinese company, the lobbying registration form filed by Ballard’s company initially failed to indicate that iGas is part foreign-owned, as is required by law.

Justin Sayfie, a spokesman for Ballard Partners, said Monday that the firm first took on iGas as a client in late October and was not initially aware of iGas’ partial foreign ownership.

He said the firm planned to submit an amended registration form reflecting the correct information.

iGas didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

Under the Lobbying Disclosure Act, lobbyists are required to indicate whether any foreign entity holds at least a 20% stake in the company on behalf of which they are lobbying.

But this rule is frequently ignored by lobbyists, according to Craig Holman, the lobbyist for Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group that seeks to limit corporate influence on public policy.

“It’s something we really have to crack down,” he said.

As the Herald previously reported, when the company was first established in 2018, a state-controlled Chinese company invested $10 million in the venture and took a 34% stake in the company.

Since then, the company has ramped up its political giving, to the tune of more than $1.1 million. The giving, which has come from the company, its employees and an associated company, has largely favored Republicans in Florida, many of whom have voiced strong concerns about growing Chinese influence. No politician has benefited more than DeSantis: Committees backing him have taken in more than $340,000 in the past five years.

The increase in political giving comes as the company is in a fight with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which is phasing down gases called hydrofluorocarbons, or HFCs, that iGas imports from China.

The gases are used to cool air conditioners and refrigerators, but are a major driver of climate change.

The EPA has used prior market share data to determine how much of the gas firms are entitled to sell going forward.

iGas has fought with the EPA over how it determines that allocation, which the company’s CEO, Xianbin (Ben) Meng once estimated could be worth billions in profits for the company over the next two decades.

The company has gotten assistance in its fight with the EPA from several Republican members of Congress from Florida, most notably Gus Bilirakis, who co-signed letters to the EPA mirroring iGas’ own arguments.

Earlier this year, iGas took its fight with the EPA to federal court, filing a petition arguing that the agency’s phasedown methodology is “arbitrary and capricious.”

Hiring Ballard, a lobbyist from Florida who is now one of the most powerful lobbyists in Washington, is the latest effort by the company to influence federal policy.

The lobbying registration showed that Ballard and another lobbyist at his firm, John O’Hanlon, had been hired on the company’s behalf to lobby on the phasedown of HFCs.

Ballard was once described as the most powerful federal lobbyist during the administration of former President Donald Trump and has been described as being in the inner circle of DeSantis.

Brian Ballard discusses the development of the Tallahassee headquarters of his Ballard Partners firm on Wednesday, June 16, 2021. Alicia Devine/Tallahassee Democrat
Brian Ballard discusses the development of the Tallahassee headquarters of his Ballard Partners firm on Wednesday, June 16, 2021. Alicia Devine/Tallahassee Democrat

Ballard’s firm has disclosed a foreign relationship for roughly 10% of the more than 325 federal clients it has represented since 2017, according to federal lobbying records. In two instances, the firm failed to initially disclose the relationship of a foreign entity to its clients on its initial registration forms, though in both of those cases it submitted amended registration forms on the same day.

Holman, the Public Citizen lobbyist, said that lobbyists who fail to flag a foreign interest on lobbying disclosure forms are unlikely to face serious penalties, especially if they subsequently amend their original filings.

He said that poor compliance with the disclosure requirements has largely been a result of lax enforcement by Congressional officials tasked with reviewing the forms, but that adherence to the requirement has improved in recent years following the increased focus on foreign lobbying violations during the Trump administration.