Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–April 2019 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. The April 2019 update is now available here. A couple of the more notable new developments in this update:

  • Ballard Partners, a lobbying firm with close ties to the Trump administration, is apparently explicitly directing the firm’s clients to book rooms and hold events at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, DC, as a way to influence the administration
  • The Trump Hotel is selling merchandise with images of the White House, in an apparent attempt to further marketize/monetize President Trump’s official position.

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–March 2019 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. The March 2019 update is now available here. A couple of the more notable new developments in this update:

  • A House of Representatives Oversight Committee released a report on a Trump Administration proposal to transfer nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia. President Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner was directly involved in discussions of this proposal. Brookfield Management, the asset management firm that effectively bailed out the Kushner family company by leasing the Kushner-owned property at 666 Fifth Avenue, also recently purchased a nuclear services company that would have directly benefited from the Saudi deal.
  • The General Services Administration (GSA) inspector general released a report questioning the GSA’s earlier decision that the Trump International Hotel’s lease on the D.C. Old Post Office was consistent with the terms of the lease; the IG stopped short of saying that the GSA’s determination was improper, but criticized the GSA lawyers for not addressing the constitutional issues implicated by this deal.

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 CICIG Crisis in Guatemala: How the Trump Administration Is Undermining US Anticorruption Leadership

Back when Donald Trump was first elected, a lot of people—me included—worried about the implications of his presidency for US leadership in the global fight against corruption. Some of the dire predictions have not (yet) come to pass; for example, so far US enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) does not seem to have abated despite Trump’s well-documented and ill-informed hostility to that statute. But even if US enforcement of the FCPA has proceeded without much discernible effect (so far), there are other, less easily measurable respects in which the Trump Administration’s foreign policy, and its own cavalier disregard for ethics, may be undermining US leadership on anticorruption issues, and consequently undermining anticorruption efforts and bolstering those who would seek to undermine such efforts.

As just noted, much of this effect is diffuse and hard to observe directly, but there are a few examples where the Trump Administration and its allies are undermining the global fight against corruption is more evident. Perhaps the most striking and disheartening is the situation unfolding in Guatemala, ably documented in a compelling piece by Colum Lynch on Foreign Policy’s FP Blog earlier this month. Long story short: The Trump Administration and its allies in Congress appear to be supporting, or at least tacitly accepting, the efforts of Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales to shut down Guatemala’s UN-sponsored anti-impunity commission, known by its Spanish acronym CICIG, which has proved instrumental in fighting high-level corruption in Guatemala, and forced the resignation of President Morales’s predecessor, Otto Perez Molina. President Morales campaigned on an anticorruption platform, but he now wants to shut CICIG down, apparently because it’s investigating his own family members and associates. And the US, which had supported CICIG in the past and pressured President Molina to renew its mandate when he was inclined to terminate it to protect himself, seems to be backing Morales rather than CICIG.

I won’t go into all the details here, as the story is ably laid out in Mr. Lynch’s excellent piece. I’ll just highlight some themes that emerge from the reporting that Mr. Lynch and others have done, which illustrate connections—some direct, some indirect—between the Trump Administration’s approach to government and the dissipation of US leadership on anticorruption issues, as illustrated by the CICIG debacle. Continue reading

Uzbekistan’s Own Donald Trump

Donald Trump owes much of his success as a real estate developer to an easy relationship with the anti-money laundering laws, and he continues to profit from his investments while President thanks to an even easier relationship with conflict of interest norms.  Reports out of Uzbekistan suggest Jahongir Artykhodjaev, mayor of the capital city Tashkent, has followed a Trumpian-like path to wealth and power.  Like Trump, Artykhodjaev has looked past how investors in his real estate projects came into their money; like Trump, while in public office he has steered government contracts to companies he owns, and like Trump, when called on his dual role as businessman and government officials, he claims to have distanced himself from his business empire upon taking office.

The main difference (besides hair color) between Trump and Artykhodjaev is that independent prosecutors are examining whether Trump broke rather than simply bent anti-money laundering and conflict of interest laws. By contrast, after accounts in the international press (here and here) exposed Artykhodjaev’s Trumpian proclivities, senior Uzbek officials called a press conference where they leapt to his defense, going so far as to deny there is any Uzbekistan law that Artykhodjaev could have broken. Continue reading

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–February 2019 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. The February 2019 update is now available here

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 Case for State-Level Anticorruption Prosecutions in the U.S.

In the United States, the federal government’s Department of Justice (DOJ) plays a huge role in the prosecution of state-level public corruption: Over the past five years, federal prosecutors have obtained the convictions of approximately 1,700 corrupt state and local officials for corruption-related offenses. Examples range from prominent and powerful figures like Sheldon Silver, the former Speaker of the New York State Assembly, to low-level functionaries like Eloy Infante and Elpidio Yanez, Jr., two former members of the School Board of Donna, Texas.

The federal government’s primacy in prosecuting state and local corruption is no accident. One of the stories of American law enforcement in the 20th century, especially though not exclusively in the anticorruption context, is the expanding role of the federal government, an expansion that was in part a reaction to the perceived deficiencies of state law enforcement. Most states in the U.S. elect both prosecutors and judges, and concerns that these elected officials were under-resourced, incompetent, partisan, or captured by local influence-peddlers contributed to the rise of federal criminal law enforcement. The federal government’s role in prosecuting state and local corruption blossomed in the 1970s, with regional U.S. Attorney’s offices taking the lead, supported by a new DOJ Public Integrity Section in Washington, D.C. The U.S. Attorney’s offices were considered more independent and less vulnerable to capture than local law enforcement, were generally better resourced than their state and local counterparts, and were able to focus those resources on picked cases.

This system has worked well and achieved considerable success. Many argue—with justification—that the federal government’s central role in prosecuting state and local corruption was instrumental in breaking the stranglehold of corrupt political machines at the subnational level. But today, it’s important for state prosecutors to do more to supplement, and in some cases perhaps supplant, federal anticorruption prosecutions. If the story of the 20th century was a distrust of states to police their own politicians, the early 21st century story may be that we can no longer completely trust the feds to do it either. There are three main reasons why, going forward, we may need to rely increasingly on the states:

Continue reading

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–January 2019 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. The January 2019 update is now available here. There are a number of important (and disturbing) additions to this month’s update. Most notably:

  • Federal prosecutors are now investigating a range of possible legal violations related to Trump’s inauguration committee, which raised a record amount ($107 million) for President Trump’s inauguration. According to reports, there is evidence that much of this money was raised from questionable sources, and that much of it was spent in ways that brought windfall profits to the Trump Organization–in violation of various federal laws. In particular, on the fundraising side, it seems that both domestic and foreign interests donated heavily to the inaugural committee with the apparent intent of influencing US policy. And on the spending side, the inauguration committee spent heavily at Trump Organization properties, apparently at above-market rates. Though the investigation is ongoing, there’s at least suggestive evidence that the inauguration committee might have been a surreptitious way for interest groups and foreign governments to funnel money directly to the Trump family.
  • Previous editions of this tracking project have noted concerns about the Trump Organization’s past and current business dealings in the Dominican Republic. A recent Global Witness report suggests that although the Trump Organization claims that its current business in the Dominican Republic is a continuation of an older deal that started before Trump took office, in fact the Trump Organization and its local partner are pursuing an entirely new development project, in clear violation of President Trump’s pledge that the Trump Organization would not pursue any “new foreign deals” during his presidency.
  • Jared Kushner and his family stand to benefit personally from a federal program–the “Opportunity Zone” program–that offers large tax breaks to developers who invest in low-income neighborhoods. This program was heavily promoted by Ivanka Trump, Kushner’s wife, and though neither of them will play a direct formal role in determining which neighborhoods will be designated “opportunity zones” eligible for tax credits, there is an obvious conflict of interest concern, especially since the Kushner family owns multiple properties in areas that have already been designated as opportunity zones–including neighborhoods that are actually quite affluent.

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.