SAN JUAN DEL SUR, Nicaragua—The rolling surf of the Pacific Ocean crashes onto white sand beaches below a lush hillside in southwest Nicaragua, a picture of tropical paradise by anyone's definition.
These days, paradise is for sale. Contact the seller, Rep. Jerry Weller (R-Ill.).
In 2002 Weller made his first official congressional trip to Nicaragua. Before the year was over, he had bought his first lot and eventually began looking for land he could subdivide into parcels that would attract buyers looking for prime ocean-view property at a relatively low price. It is an unusual investment for a member of Congress, and Weller's foreign land holdings seem far more extensive than any other House member's.
His investment got a boost from the narrowly passed Central America Free Trade Agreement, which Weller pitched in 2005 as a tool to enable businesses in his hard-pressed district to sell tractors and food to Latin America. CAFTA also includes additional legal protection for American investors, including those who have purchased lots from Weller.
What he didn't say was that, while he publicly pushed CAFTA, Weller privately was pursuing his land development, some 2,000 miles away. The House approved the trade pact in July 2005 by only two votes, 217-215.
Besides not mentioning his Nicaraguan investments during the CAFTA debate on the House floor, Weller did not give anywhere close to a complete accounting of them in his required 2005 financial disclosure statement. House ethics rules require representatives to disclose all property they own except for their personal residences.
The congressman listed only one Nicaraguan property purchase on his 2005 disclosure form, but property records in Nicaragua show that he bought or sold at least eight pieces of land.
That's not the only discrepancy. On at least two occasions, Weller has reported a land sale on his House ethics form and reported a much lower price for the same sale on Nicaraguan property records. Nicaragua's Pacific Coast was a prime spot for real estate bargains in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but buyers also frequently listed artificially low prices to lessen the bite of local taxes.
For example, Weller's first disclosed purchase in the coastal town of San Juan del Sur appeared on his 2002 financial filing, listing a lot with a purchase price of between $50,001 and $100,000. But in property records at the Registrar's office in Rivas, the department seat for San Juan, Weller is reported paying 78,000 cordobas, or about $4,333, for four-tenths of an acre in a transaction on Dec. 7, 2002.
Records indicate that Weller sold the same property in February 2005 for about $95,000. That sale does not appear on Weller's 2005 House disclosure.
When asked about the discrepancies, Weller's office first insisted that questions be given to the congressman in writing. After a week passed with no response to the written questions, The Tribune requested to talk to Weller in person. On Thursday afternoon, Weller's spokesman said he would not answer questions and had no comment.
The congressman missed all recorded House votes in Washington this week. His spokesman said he was out of the city, caring for his 1-year-old daughter.
Uneasy fit within GOP caucus
Weller's emergence as a real estate developer near the booming beach resort just north of the Costa Rican border is another step in the political and personal migration by the one-time University of Illinois agriculture major who grew up on a hog farm.
Elected to Congress as part of the Republican landslide in 1994, Weller has been an uneasy fit within the Republican caucus. He has lost numerous intraparty races for leadership posts, and has never achieved the high profile he hoped for when he arrived in Washington.
Increasingly, Weller has focused on international issues, notably in Latin America, a region that has come to dominate his personal life and his private business dealings.
In January 2002, Weller made his first government-paid trip to the region, including a stop in Nicaragua to attend the inauguration of newly elected President Enrique Bolanos. In November 2004, Weller married Zury Rios Sosa, a member of the Guatemalan Congress and the daughter of Efrain Rios Montt, a general who ruled Guatemala in 1982-83, at the height of a brutal, nearly four-decade civil war during which an estimated 200,000 people were killed.
Between 2003 and 2006, Weller served on the Western Hemisphere subcommittee of the International Relations Committee and quietly made himself into a go-to guy for interests seeking a conservative advocate on Latin American issues in the Republican-controlled House.