Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–June 2018 Update

Since May 2017, GAB has been tracking credible allegations that President Trump, as well as his family members and close associates, are seeking to use the presidency to advance their personal financial interests, and providing monthly updates on media reports of such issues. Our June 2018 update is now available here. The most troubling new items included in this update are the following:

  • First, there is evidence suggesting that the Chinese government may have provided financial benefits to Trump-affiliated businesses in order to influence the President to take steps to lift sanctions on ZTE, a Chinese telecommunications company that has been sanctioned by the U.S. government for illegally transferring U.S. high-technology components to Iran and North Korea. In particular, shortly before President Trump announced that his administration would seek to lift the sanctions on ZTE, a Chinese state-owned company had provided a $500 million loan for a Trump Organization development project in Indonesia, and around the same time the Chinese government had granted several trademarks to Ivanka Trump’s company.
  • Second, investigations of Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen have revealed that Cohen’s consulting company, which he formed shortly before the election, had received substantial payments from several clients, including a firm closely tied to a Russian Oligarch, as well as several large firms with strong interests in pending U.S. government decisions (including AT&T and Novartis). It is not clear what, if any, consulting services Mr. Cohen’s firm provided, nor is it clear what happened to the money that the firm received from these corporate clients, raising the possibility that the firm may have been a “slush fund” for Trump, or, worse, as a means for funneling bribes to Trump or his close associates in exchange for favorable policy decisions. At this point, this is all speculation, though more information may become available as the investigations into Cohen’s activities proceeds.

As always, we note that while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, we acknowledge that many of the allegations that we discuss are speculative and/or contested. We also do not attempt a full analysis of the laws and regulations that may or may not have been broken if the allegations are true. For an overview of some of the relevant federal laws and regulations that might apply to some of the alleged problematic conduct, see here.

An Amazing Database: DIGIWHIST Strikes Again

DIGIWHIST has struck again.  It has just released the latest version of its extraordinary data set covering political financing, disclosure of officials’ finances, conflict of interest, right to information, and public procurement in 34 European states plus the European Union.  With the laws on each subject along with an assessment of how thoroughly they address area, it is a real treat.

At least for the kind of people who read GAB (that means you, dear reader).

The database is part of an EU-funded digital whistleblowing project (DIGIWHIST).  The project’s aim is to improve trust in governments and the efficiency of public spending across Europe by providing civil society, investigative journalists, and civil servants with the information and tools they need to both increase transparency in public spending and enhance the accountability of public officials.  For those working in developing states, it is an invaluable resource, showing how different developed countries and those making the transition to a market economy deal with critical issues involving public integrity and transparency.  Thanks to the EU for supporting such a great project and congratulations to those whose hard work produced such a useful resource.

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–April 2018 Update

Last May, we launched our project to track credible allegations that President Trump, as well as his family members and close associates, are seeking to use the presidency to advance their personal financial interests.Just as President Trump’s son Eric will be providing President Trump with “quarterly” updates on the Trump Organization’s business affairs, we will do our best to provide readers with regular updates on credible allegations of presidential profiteering (despite the fact that Eric Trump seems to think this is a violation of his family’s First Amendment rights). Our April 2018 update is now available here.

There are not too many new items in this month’s update, though there have been some additional stories on Jared Kushner’s potential conflicts of interest, most notably concerns raised about his White House meetings last year with representatives of financial institutions that subsequently provided substantial loans to Kushner family companies. There was also another example of mostly trivial but blatantly improper use of the presidency as a marketing tool, with Trump Organization golf courses ordering tee markers with the presidential seal, in clear violation of a law forbidding such private, non-official uses of the seal. (The tracker doesn’t include a discussion of allegations that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt received a below-market-rate apartment from an industry lobbyist, as this seemed sufficiently removed from issues related to the personal enrichment of Trump’s family and inner circle, but Rick has a good discussion of the ethics issues raised by the Pruitt situation in yesterday’s post.)

As always, we note that while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, we acknowledge that many of the allegations that we discuss are speculative and/or contested. We also do not attempt a full analysis of the laws and regulations that may or may not have been broken if the allegations are true. For an overview of some of the relevant federal laws and regulations that might apply to some of the alleged problematic conduct, see here.

The Trump Administration’s Ethical Conduct: An Appreciation

Whatever else one might say about corruption and the Trump Administration, it has been a godsend for those who teach ethics and integrity courses.  Recent, real-world examples can spice up otherwise dry, abstract presentations while helping drive home key points, and Trump officials’ habit of skating at the edge of permissible conduct never fails to provide headline grabbing fodder for classroom discussion.  The most recent debt of gratitude ethics instructors owe the Trump Administration arises from the Environmental Protection Agency chief’s choice of a D.C. landlord.  In one fell swoop agency head Scott Pruitt’s actions illustrate the finer points of not one but two key ethical norms, the receipt of gifts and the duty to appear impartial.

The story begins with Pruitt’s decision after appointment as chief regulator of American environmental protection laws to not move to Washington, D.C. but instead to rent a place just for the nights spent in the nation’s capital.  He found the spare bedroom in a two-bedroom apartment located in a tony part of town whose owners agreed to rent the extra bedroom for $50 for each night Pruitt spent in Washington.

Real estate agents told the New York Times that Pruitt got quite a bargain: $50 a night was less than one would expect to pay on the open market.  Pruitt’s ethical travails begin here. Continue reading

Corruption in the Trump Administration: A Discussion on “The Scholars’ Circle”

As readers of this blog are well aware, we’ve had quite a bit of discussion here regarding concerns about corruption and conflicts of interest in the Trump Administration (including our regularly-updated page that tracks credible allegations of such corruption and conflicts). I recently had the opportunity to participate in a discussion of these issues on “The Scholars’ Circle,” a radio program hosted by Maria Armoudian (and to which I’ve had the opportunity to contribute once before). I was joined for the panel by Professor Richard Gordon, an expert in money laundering who directs the Case Western Financial Integrity Institute. A recording of the program can be found here. Some highlights of the discussion:

  • We started with an overview of the various kinds of allegations of corruption and conflicts of interest in the Trump Administration—basically, an oral summary of some of the highlights of our Trump Corruption Tracker (from about 1:30 to about 7:55 on the recording of the broadcast).
  • Professor Gordon followed up on this by providing an overview of money laundering allegations against Trump associates and Trump businesses, principally before the election, which prompted some back-and-forth discussion of these issues (7:56-17:30).
  • We then proceeded to discuss what Ms. Armoudian called the “So What?” question: Why these issues are important, and what their larger adverse consequences might be (17:30-22:32).
  • This was followed by some consideration of why the allegations of corruption and associated misbehavior don’t appear to bother President Trump’s supporters, and what, if anything, might prompt them to care more about these issues (22:33-28:56).
  • Ms. Armoundian then posed the provocative question of whether the Trump administration might portend the a more general spread of the “culture of corruption” throughout American politics and society, along with the erosion of rule-of-law norms and values—making U.S. politics resemble more closely what we’ve seen in other countries, such as Kenya, Brazil, South Africa, Italy, etc. (29:54-42:23).
  • The discussion then turned to the broader question of the problems of American democracy and political institutions that allowed Trump to win both the nomination and the general election, and whether Trump an aberration or sign of things to come (42:24-49:14).
  • Ms. Armoudian concluded the conversation by asking about what, if anything can be done to preserve the traditional norms and values of American political institutions and to prevent a slide into a culture of corruption in the United States. This part of the conversation went well beyond corruption, and touched on the importance of making sure, more generally, that political institutions work, and are perceived as working, as well as trying to cultivate a health political culture (49:15-56:28).

I hope the discussion may be of interest to some of our readers out there.

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–March 2018 Update

Last May, we launched our project to track credible allegations that President Trump, as well as his family members and close associates, are seeking to use the presidency to advance their personal financial interests.Just as President Trump’s son Eric will be providing President Trump with “quarterly” updates on the Trump Organization’s business affairs, we will do our best to provide readers with regular updates on credible allegations of presidential profiteering (despite the fact that Eric Trump seems to think this is a violation of his family’s First Amendment rights). Our March 2018 update is now available here.

The most notable new developments over the last month include:

  • New reports concerning the financial entanglements of Jared Kushner, the President’s son-in-law and senior advisor, in particular an allegation that multiple foreign governments may have already attempted to use Kushner’s business interests as a form of leverage to influence U.S. policy.
  • The controversy surrounding Donald Trump Jr.’s visit to India, which he ostensibly took in a solely private capacity, but which critics pointed to as exactly the sort of blending of public and private rolls that is of such great concern in this administration.
  • Additional troubling financial conflict-of-interest reports involving senior administration officials outside of the Trump family circle, including former CDC director Brenda Fitzgerald, who resigned after it was revealed that she had purchased stock in tobacco and health care companies while director, and HUD Secretary Ben Carson, whose “listening tour” appears to have been organized in such a way as to benefit his son’s business interests.

As always, we note that while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, we acknowledge that many of the allegations that we discuss are speculative and/or contested. We also do not attempt a full analysis of the laws and regulations that may or may not have been broken if the allegations are true. For an overview of some of the relevant federal laws and regulations that might apply to some of the alleged problematic conduct, see here.

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–February 2018 Update

Last May, we launched our project to track credible allegations that President Trump, as well as his family members and close associates, are seeking to use the presidency to advance their personal financial interests.Just as President Trump’s son Eric will be providing President Trump with “quarterly” updates on the Trump Organization’s business affairs, we will do our best to provide readers with regular updates on credible allegations of presidential profiteering. Our February 2018 update is now available here.

A few highlights from the most recent update:

  • Some end-of-first year statistics:
    • During his first year in office, President Trump spent 121 days (approximately one-third of his presidency) at properties owned by the Trump Organization.
    • Trump hotels and resorts earned more than $1.2 million from bookings by Republican political groups in 2017, despite having earned less than $100,000 per year from these groups in the previous 15 years.
    • On at least 35 separate occasions, members of the Trump Administration used the government platform to promote the Trump brand.
    • Trump Organization companies sold $35 million worth of real estate in 2017, mostly to secretive buyers making the purchases through anonymous shell companies. Prior to Trump’s winning the Republican nomination, fewer than 4% of Trump Organization real estate sales were to secret buyers using this tactic. Since President Trump won the nomination, that number has jumped to 70%, and stayed there throughout his first year in office.
  • The Administration recently waived sanctions against several criminally-convicted banks–sanctions that would have barred these banks from managing pension funds and individual retirement accounts. While the grant of such waivers is not unusual, some expressed concern that one of the banks granted the waiver, Deutsche Bank, has lent President Trump billions of dollars, and also provided sizable loans to Jared Kushner, raising at least the appearance of a possible conflict of interest.
  • While many coastal states applied for exemptions from the Trump Administration’s decision to lift prohibitions on offshore drilling, the Administration granted only one exemption–for Florida. The Administration has not been able to offer a coherent explanation as to why Florida is differently situated from other states, such as California, leading many to speculate that the exemption was granted in part for political reasons (the Florida Governor is a Republican), and in part because of the Trump family’s personal financial interest in protecting Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach.
  • Shortly before President Trump and Jared Kushner made their first diplomatic trip to Israel, one of Israel’s largest financial institutions made a $30 million investment in the Kushner family’s real estate company, raising questions about whether the financial ties between Kushner and Israel might skew his diplomatic priorities and strategy.
  • A Trump Tower project in India is apparently attempting to attract buyers by advertising that the first 100 people who purchase units will be able to have a meet-and-greet with Donald Trump, Jr.

As always, we note that while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, we acknowledge that many of the allegations that we discuss are speculative and/or contested. We also do not attempt a full analysis of the laws and regulations that may or may not have been broken if the allegations are true. For an overview of some of the relevant federal laws and regulations that might apply to some of the alleged problematic conduct, see here.