Experts say a letter from the Trump Organisation's lawyers to Panama's president is Trump's 'not so subtle attempt' to use the presidency for 'personal gain'

Mark Wilson/Getty ImagesDonald Trump.
  • Ethics experts criticised a controversial letter sent from a law firm representing the Trump Organisation to Panama’s president.
  • They said it the letter makes it appear as if President Donald Trump is trying to use the presidency for personal gain.

Ethics experts say a controversial letter sent from a law firm representing the Trump Organisation to Panama’s president regarding a dispute is evidence that President Donald Trump is seeking to use his position for private gain.

On Monday, The Associated Press reported on the letter, noting that lawyers at Britton & Iglesias appealed directly to Panamanian President Juan Carlos Varela for help in a dispute over a luxury Panama City hotel.

The firm, representing the Trump Organisation, asked Varela to intervene in the legal dispute, arguing that the courts denied the Trump Organisation due process and violated a bilateral treaty. The AP reported that the letter also warned of consequences for Panama if he didn’t.

Britton & Iglesias said in a statement provided to Business Insider by the Trump Organisation that they “categorically reject” the idea they sought to pressure Varela and that “nobody at Trump Organisation was aware of the letter until today.”

The firm said it sent a letter to representatives of Panama’s executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government to warn of “possible violations of the Investment Protection Treaty, which could be derived by the actions taken by some owners of the hotel units, and that, in our opinion, could result in a possible ‘procedural fraud.'”

‘They seem to be unconcerned about the damage this is doing to the reputation and stature of the US’

Ethicists, meanwhile, said this example was just the latest evidence of why they wanted Trump to fully divest from his businesses ahead of taking office, and why they still want him to do so. Instead of divesting himself of his businesses or placing them into a blind trust before taking office, Trump passed control to his two sons and a senior Trump Organisation executive – a move ethics experts said did not go far enough in addressing potential conflicts of interest.

“So, his company asking the president of Panama … to intervene in a business dispute that is in the Panamanian courts, citing a foreign treaty and implying that Panama would be seen as at fault if his business suffered damages, appears to be a not so subtle attempt to use the weight of Trump’s presidency for personal gain,” Larry Noble, the senior director and general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center, told Business Insider.

Noble added that this move is “a step beyond” past instances of conflicts involving Trump and his business.

“It appears the Trump Organisation is trying to use his position to directly intervene in the judicial process of another country for his personal benefit,” he continued. “They seem to be unconcerned about the damage this is doing to the reputation and stature of the US.”

Jordan Libowitz, a spokesman for the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told Business Insider that when lawyers representing the president’s business appear to press a foreign leader on such a matter, “how is the foreign leader supposed to differentiate President Trump’s business from President Trump himself?”

“Will there be political consequences if the foreign leader does not side with the Trump team?” he continued. “Are they implying that? These are dangerous questions, but ones we have to ask. President Trump should divest from his businesses to end these serious conflicts of interest.”

On Monday, Panama’s vice president and foreign secretary, Isabel Saint Malo, said her office was copied on the letter,which she described as urging the executive branch “to interfere in an issue clearly of the judicial branch.”

The hotel dispute gained notoriety in February when Orestes Fintiklis, the majority owner of the then-Trump International Hotel and Tower in Panama City, arrived with associates in the lobby with the aim of ousting the Trump Organisation, which had managed the hotel since its 2011 opening.

The organisation, however, refused to leave. Over the next few days, police were called to the property to “keep the peace,” the AP reported. And after Fintiklis and his associates delivered termination notices to Trump Organisation employees at the hotel, witnesses said they saw Trump executives moving files to a room to be shredded.

Fintiklis wanted to drop the Trump name from the building and argued in court documents that the Trump Organisation’s mismanagement caused occupancy levels to drop while expenses rose. Fintiklis claimed victory last month, saying Panamanian authorities allowed him to take over the hotel’s administration.

“Today, this dispute has been settled by the judges and the authorities of this country,” Fintiklis said.

The hotel has since been renamed the Bahia Grand.

On March 27, a US arbitrator ruled that the Trump Organisation shouldn’t have been evicted while arbitration was ongoing, though he did not reinstate the hotel’s management.

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