'Very, very close to solicitation of a bribe': Ethics experts question Kushner relatives pushing White House connections in China

Jared KushnerPool/Getty ImagesJared Kushner.

Ethics experts strongly criticised 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 recently detailing an opportunity to “invest $US500,000 and immigrate to the United States” using a controversial visa program while also promoting ties to Kushner and President Donald Trump, according to media reports.

Richard Painter, who served as 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 spend at least $US500,000 on a US project that creates at least 10 full-time jobs.

The EB-5 program, which provides a path to a green card, was recently renewed by Trump in last week’s spending bill. Trump’s extension of the program, which came without any changes to it, came just one day before the Kushner family’s initial pitch of 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 the Manhattan billionaire 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 utilise 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 in Shanghai and Beijing to Chinese investors promoting $US500,000 investments in the family’s New Jersey real estate as a path to US residency. Meyer, per The New York Times, made note of her brother Jared’s role in Kushner Companies, which he stepped down from as CEO prior to Trump’s inauguration.

Meyer reportedly noted that the Jersey City, New Jersey project she was pitching “means a lot” to her and her “entire family.”

The Beijing presentation featured at least one slide for investors that prominently featured Trump’s face, labelling him a “key decision maker” in the visa process.

Kushner, whose White House portfolio includes US/China relations, divested in January from “substantial assets” he held to come into compliance 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 Kushner spokesperson 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 the ethics agreement Kushner agreed to comply with.

“Jared has done everything to comply with the ethics rules” Spicer said, adding that the presentations “had nothing to do with him, per say. 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 favourable 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 added that 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.”

Democratic Rep. Elijah Cummings, the ranking member on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said the presentations only add to his insistence that the White House provide information on 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, has made note in a pair of recent reports that the EB-5 visa program discussed in the Kushner Companies presentations is subject to fraud and abuse. A total of 10,000 such visas were issued last year, according to The New York Times. About three-quarters of them went to Chinese nationals.  

Business Insider reached out to the Office of Government Ethics, the government agency tasked with executive branch ethical oversight, but did not immediately receive a response.

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