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Ethics experts criticized White House senior adviser Jared Kushner’s relatives for using White House connections to enhance a presentation to Chinese investors last weekend.
Members of Kushner’s family gave multiple presentations in China detailing an opportunity to “invest $500,000 and immigrate to the United States” through a controversial visa program and promoting ties to Kushner and President Donald Trump, according to media reports.
Richard Painter, who was President George W. Bush’s top ethics lawyer from 2005 to 2007 and is now a professor at the University of Minnesota, told Business Insider the presentation was “obviously completely inappropriate.”
He added that the Kushner family “ought to be disqualified” from the EB-5 visa program they were promoting. The visa is awarded to foreign investors who invest at least $500,000 in US projects that create at least 10 full-time jobs.
Trump renewed the EB-5 program, which provides a path to a green card, in the government spending bill passed last week. Trump’s extension of the program, without any changes to it, came one day before the Kushner family initially pitched the program to Chinese investors.
Painter said the latest ethics controversy was “more of the same” involving the Trump White House, which has found itself in a litany of ethical conflicts since Trump won the presidency in November.
“Use of public office for private gain,” Painter said. “There’s a story every couple of days.”
Noah Bookbinder, the executive director of the liberal ethics-watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told Business Insider that Kushner’s family business “should not be benefitting” from his position in the White House.
“If an investment ever led to access and influence, it would raise the specter of serious corruption violations,” he said. “He should take immediate action to ensure that the businesses refrain from using his official position to promote investments. In fact, no Trump or Kushner companies should utilize the EB-5 program. The possibility for the appearance of improper influence, and perhaps worse, is too great.”
The latest controversy began when Kushner’s sister Nicole Meyer delivered presentations to Chinese investors in Shanghai and Beijing that promoted $500,000 investments in the family’s New Jersey real estate as a path to US residency. According to The New York Times, Meyer mentioned Jared’s role in Kushner Companies – he was CEO but stepped down before Trump’s inauguration.
Meyer told the investors the Jersey City project she was pitching “means “a lot to me and my entire family,” according to The Times.
The Beijing presentation featured at least one slide for investors that prominently featured Trump’s face, labeling him a “key decision maker” in the visa process.
— Javier C. Hernández (@HernandezJavier) May 6, 2017
Kushner, whose White House portfolio includes US-China relations, in January divested himself of “substantial assets” to comply with federal ethics statutes. Reuters reported that Kushner sold his stake in Kushner Companies to a family trust earlier this year, and his lawyer said in March that the adviser was complying with federal ethics rules.
A spokesman for Kushner told The Washington Post that he would recuse himself from any administration decisions regarding the EB-5 program.
In a statement provided to NPR, Kushner Companies said it “apologizes if that mention of [Meyer’s] brother was in any way interpreted as an attempt to lure investors.”
Asked about the controversy during Monday’s press briefing, White House press secretary Sean Spicer said the presentations were not a violation of Kushner’s ethics agreement.
“Jared has done everything to comply with the ethics rules,” Spicer said, adding that the presentations “had nothing to do with him, per se. He wasn’t involved.”
But the second part of Spicer’s statement didn’t hold much weight with Painter.
“Well, if Jared wasn’t involved, he’s got family members running around using his name to solicit money,” he said. “And this is coming very, very close to solicitation of a bribe. I mean, they’re asking for money to be paid to a government official in return for – they’re promising favorable treatment on a visa. And then they’re putting pictures up there of Donald Trump, and they’re talking about how he works in the White House.”
Painter said the White House should “prevail upon” the Kushner family to exclude themselves from the program and make sure the State Department excludes any investments in Kushner projects from the EB-5 program.
The former White House chief ethics lawyer, who supported Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton in the general election, added that the Trump administration should “think about broad recusals for Jared and Ivanka from China-related matters.” Ivanka Trump is Kushner’s wife and an adviser to the president, her father.
Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking member of the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said the presentations only added to his insistence that the White House provide information about who in the administration is exempt from certain ethics requirements.
“Congress and the American people deserve to know that our government is not being used to line the pockets of the president’s family members,” Cummings told Business Insider in a statement. “This is exactly why we need to see who at the White House has received waivers to exempt them from conflict of interest requirements, including in particular the president’s family members who have deep personal ties to outside businesses.”
The Government Accountability Office, a federal watchdog agency that provides auditing and investigative services for Congress, said in a pair of recent reports that the EB-5 visa program discussed in the Kushner Companies presentations was subject to fraud and abuse. A total of 10,000 such visas were issued last year, about three-quarters of which went to Chinese nationals, according to The Times.
The Office of Government Ethics, the agency tasked with executive-branch ethical oversight, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.