Lessons from the Trump Administration’s Conflicts of Interest

In May 2017, this blog began tracking corruption and conflicts of interest in the Trump Administration, in order to identify and document the myriad ways that the President, his family, and his closest advisors may “use the presidency to advance their personal financial interests.” This includes payments directly from the U.S. government to the Trump Organization (e.g. the Secret Service renting out space in the Trump Tower); use of the presidency to promote Trump brands (e.g. numerous Republican re-election campaigns held in Trump owned businesses); regulatory and policy decisions that benefit the Trump family and close advisors (e.g. the General Services Administration approving a lease for the Trump International Hotel); and private and foreign interests dealing with Trump businesses (e.g. Trump hotel, resort, and other development projects around the world). Keeping track of all these various conflict and corruption risks is important at a time when the news of yesterday gets drowned out and forgotten amid the drama of today.

After working for over a year as one of several contributors to this tracking project, I think that there are also some broader lessons and themes that have emerged from these efforts, which are worth highlighting:

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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

Telling Corruption’s Story, or Why is Corruption So Boring? (Part 1)

In 2010, a group of talented young musicians from across the globe gathered in Nairobi, with the financial support of Transparency International and Jeunesses Musicales International. Their mission: to write and record a viral hit that would not only communicate the gravity of corruption to young people (a crucial demographic for anticorruption activists), but would also make them want to share the tune with their friends. The diverse band of artists left the studio with “Against Corruption,” a reggae jam complete with Lebanese Arabic hip-hop verses and flamenco-tinged guitar riffs. You can watch the music video here, or listen to the audio here.

Despite its all-star cast and catchy hook, however, the big budget music video has been viewed just over 600 times. This kind of failure to turn big anticorruption dollars into effective campaigns that generate excitement, activism, and action on the ground isn’t unique. The anticorruption community’s proposed revolution may well be broadcast, but its soundtrack will be probably be, dare I say, boring. And as a result, few will tune in.

Why is that? What makes it so much easier to capture an audience’s imagination when speaking about issues like the refugee crisis or modern-day slavery than to tell the story of corruption, whose effects are similarly destructive?

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Shareholder Proposals as a Response to Trump’s Conflicts of Interest

Donald Trump’s continuing failure to place his assets in a blind trust creates an opportunity for him to abuse the public office of the Presidency for private gain—his own and his family’s. The Trumps have shown themselves willing to work with blatantly corrupt business partners in the past; now, with the awesome power of the Presidency, Trump is in a unique position to do significant damage to the anticorruption agenda. People who, like me, are bothered by the conflicts of interest have sought ways to fight back. While my last post discussed the viability of the Trump anticorruption boycotts, here I discuss a different but potentially complementary approach: shareholder proposals.

What is a shareholder proposal? Every year, each shareholder receives a long booklet of information, called a proxy statement, from every company in which he or she holds stock. These proxy statements are compiled by corporate leadership and distributed to shareholders, who are asked to vote on certain matters: electing directors to the board, hiring the corporate accounting firm, and approving executive compensation. At the end of the proxy statement come the shareholder proposals, short recommendations for the board of directors. Shareholders are asked to vote for or against those proposals.

Under SEC Rule 14a-8, any shareholder (or group of shareholders) who holds $2,000 or 1% (whichever is less) of the company for at least one year may submit a proposal. (There are a few other procedural requirements as well, but they are not too onerous.) Although shareholder proposals are merely advisory—the directors and management retain their power to make decisions on behalf of the corporation—shareholder proposals in the past have been used to advance social and political goals. For example, social activists used shareholder proposals to urge divesting from South Africa during the apartheid era. Last year Exxon Mobile included shareholder proposals to place a climate expert on the Board and to report on compensation for women. A shareholder proposal for Coca-Cola asked the company to report on its operations in high-risk regions with poor human rights records.

In this vein, anticorruption activists who hold stock in corporations that do business with the Trump family brands (such as Amazon, Macy’s, or Zappos) could submit shareholder proposals urging those companies to report on or cease all such business. To be sure, shareholder proposals are merely recommendations to the board. But shareholder proposals are nonetheless a low-cost tool in the anticorruption advocate’s toolbox that can help keep public attention on the issue and prevent the normalization of Trump’s conflicts.

An anti-Trumpian-conflicts-of-interest shareholder proposal, cast in the formalistic style typical of such proposals, might look something like the following:

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Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump, Anti-Nepotism, and Conflicts of Interest

On the same day as President Trump’s swearing in, the Department of Justice’s (DOJ) Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) released a memorandum elaborating upon why President Trump’s appointment of his son-in-law Jared Kushner as a Senior White House Advisor did not violate the federal anti-nepotism statute (5 U.S.C. § 3110). That statute prohibits a public official (including the President) from appointing or employing a relative (which the statute defines as including a son-in-law or daughter-in-law). The OLC reasoned that despite the seemingly clear prohibition in 5 U.S.C § 3110, another federal statute, 3 U.S.C. § 105(a), exempted positions in the White House Office from the anti-nepotism law. The OLC recognized this conclusion was a departure from its own precedent, but with the aid of some selective reading of legislative history, the OLC argued that lawmakers intended to allow the president “total discretion” in employment matters when it passed 3 U.S.C. § 105(a). (For non-specialists, see this primer for an explanation of these and other federal laws and regulations which could be relevant for addressing corruption in the Trump Administration.)

Somewhat predictably, the OLC memo generated debate among legal commentators (see here, here, here, and here). Yet even if the legal arguments were not entirely convincing, the OLC ended with a practical point that was echoed by many of the commentaries: given that President Trump will seek Mr. Kushner’s advice, regardless of whether he is a formal employee, it would be better for Mr. Kushner to be formally employed as a White House advisor, and thus subject to the applicable conflict-of-interest (COI) and financial disclosure rules. The same argument applies to Ivanka Trump, who also recently became an employee of the White House.

Some anticorruption advocates, myself included, were persuaded at the time by the OLC’s practical point. It would be best if the President did not make major policy decisions on the advice of radically unqualified relatives. But unfortunately, he is going to turn to them for advice. Given that baseline, we should prefer those family members occupy formal appointments, where at least they will be constrained by the COI statute and disclosure rules. However, with the benefit of hindsight, we should never have been persuaded. The COI statute and the disclosure rules turn out to be ineffective devices for preventing corruption in the Trump era. While the disclosure rules did encourage Mr. Kushner to make some divestments, they do not contain enough details to identify potential conflicts. And when there are conflicts, the COI statute is unlikely to be enforced, either because Attorney General Jeff Sessions will choose not to, or because the White House will grant a waiver.

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Good News in the Anticorruption War

I had planned to write a reply, and partial rebuttal, to last week’s posts by Matthew and Travis on ethics, corruption, and Donald Trump.  The more I tried to come up with something to say, however, the more depressed I grew.  Instead, as a tonic — for this writer and perhaps others born or living in Trumplandia — what follows is instead good news on the global anticorruption front –

Laos: Shedding Fancy Government Vehicles that Smack of Corruption.  A December decree orders all government officials to trade their government-bought Mercedes, BMWs, Lexus, and other high-end vehicles for more modest means of transport.  Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith and President Bounnhang Vorachit have both returned their BMW 7 Series and now drive Toyota Camry 2.5 cars instead. Other ministry and party officials must follow suit. (Details here.)

The Netherlands: Civil Society Attacks Money Launderers.  SMX Collective, a grassroots organization of Dutch and Mexican activists, academics, artists, journalists, curators and researchers concerned about the extreme impunity and violence suffered by Mexican people, has filed a complaint with the Dutch Public Prosecutor demanding the Dutch Bank Rabobank be charged with money laundering for its role in aiding Mexican drug cartels.  Vigorous pursuit of banks and other intermediaries for facilitating corrupt activities is urgently required, and Dutch civil society’s complaint is a welcome sign and an example others should copy.  For an English language summary of the complaint, click on “Continue Reading” at the bottom of the page.

France & Peru: Former Heads of State in Anticorruption Dock.  Prosecutors are pursuing charges against former French President Nicolas Sarkozy for campaign finance violations (NYT account here; Le Monde here) and former Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo for accepting a bribe (AP/NYT here; El Comercio here).  Neither case seems political.  Both have been brought by career law enforcement authorities who have no apparent ax, political or otherwise to grind.  The two may ultimately be found innocent by their nations’ courts, but the fact that high office in the two countries does not automatically carry with it immunity from prosecution for corruption crimes has to be considered very good news.

All three stories lifted my spirits.  I trust it will help other readers recognize that despite the fact President Trump is unlikely to fall over corruption claims (nicely explained by New Yorker writer James Surowieki here), the war against corruption is proceeding apace.

Summary in English of SMX complaint:  Continue reading