The families of two Ecuadoran brothers – wanted in their home country after being sentenced in absentia on embezzlement charges – have donated thousands of dollars to the re-election campaigns of U.S. President Barack Obama and more than a dozen members of Congress, adding to a diplomatic spat with the South American nation and the appearance of a financial conflict of interest inside the Beltway.
Ecuador’s government has hounded the United States to extradite Roberto and William Isaias, but a year after the brothers' relatives doled out $90,000 to help re-elect Obama, the administration has staunchly refused to make any such moves. The inaction by the White House has led to criticism, both at home and abroad, that the donations were meant to curry favor with the Obama administration in order to keep them in the U.S.
“The Isaias brothers fled to Miami not to live off their work, something just, but to buy themselves more mansions and Rolls-Royces and to finance American political campaigns,” Ecuadoran President Rafael Correa said, according to the New York Times. “That’s what has given them protection.”
The two brothers are the former owners of a bank that was at the center of a 1990s financial meltdown that cost Ecuadoran taxpayers more than $8 billion. Last year, they were sentenced in absentia in Ecuador to eight years in prison.
Besides Obama, the Isaias brothers have also been tied to New Jersey Democratic Sen. Robert Menendez.
The Department of Justice announced in January that it is investigating Menendez to see if he was engaged in any wrongdoing when his office attempted to assist the two fugitive bankers.
Investigators are looking into whether Menendez personally reached out to a high-ranking immigration official in 2012 pressing for the Isaias brothers to be allowed to reside permanently in the United States and not be sent back to Ecuador. Investigators in particular want to know if the senator made the effort in exchange for large campaign donations by the Isaias brothers.
While the Isaias brothers’ plight has been stained by allegations of political payoffs, the extradition dispute is also part of a more widespread battle between Washington and Quito involving two other international fugitives: Julian Assange, the founder of WikiLeaks, and Edward J. Snowden, the former intelligence contractor and NSA leaker.
Assange, who faces prosecution and possibly the death penalty in the U.S. for revealing state secrets, has been holed up in the Ecuadoran embassy in London for over a year and a half. Snowden, who was offered asylum in Ecuador, is also wanted for exposing a number of NSA spying programs worldwide and his freedom has soured relations with not only Ecuador but also Russia, where he is currently living under temporary asylum.
Last January, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden met with Ecuadoran leader Rafael Correa, and while Correa said the meeting was "extremely friendly, extremely cordial" no progress was made in the cases of Assange, Snowden or the Isaias brothers.