Inspector General Urges Ethics Review Of Trump-Connected Official After Pro Publica Report

Inspector General Urges Ethics Review Of Trump-Connected Official After Pro Publica Report

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica

The inspector general for the Federal Election Commission is calling on the agency to review its ethics policies and internal controls after a ProPublica investigation last year revealed that a senior manager openly supported Donald Trump and maintained a close relationship with a Republican attorney who went on to serve as the 2016 Trump campaign's top lawyer.

The report by ProPublica raised questions about the impartiality of the FEC official, Debbie Chacona, a civil servant who oversees the unit responsible for keeping unlawful contributions out of U.S. political campaigns. The division's staffers are supposed to adhere to a strict ethics code and forgo any public partisan activities because such actions could imply preferential treatment for a candidate or party and jeopardize the commission's credibility.

In its findings, the inspector general said Chacona, head of the FEC's Reports Analysis Division, or RAD, did not improperly intervene in a review of the Trump inaugural committee's fundraising and acted “consistent with relevant law and policy" by allowing career analysts to handle the filings.

But the inspector general said “it is important to address the ethical principle that federal employees should avoid even the appearance of impropriety." It added that the FEC's “unique mission raises heightened concerns when allegations of personal or political bias are raised against FEC senior personnel that could undermine the public's confidence in the agency" and recommended the commission “evaluate the current agency policies on ethical behavior and update them, as may be appropriate."

Chacona displayed her support for Trump in Facebook posts, including one in which she posed with her family around a “Make America Great Again" sign at Trump's January 2017 inaugural. Separately, emails obtained by ProPublica showed that she also consulted regularly on matters personal and professional with the Republican lawyer, Donald McGahn, when he was an FEC commissioner from 2008 to September 2013.

After Trump's election, the fundraising practices of his inaugural committee prompted complaints that the FEC failed to properly examine contributions. As head of RAD, Chacona signed off on amended filings by the committee intended to address some of those complaints even though the revised reports continued to list problematic donations, including ones from donors whose addresses didn't exist in public records.

The 300-employee FEC is an independent regulatory agency that was created by Congress to enforce campaign finance law. It is headed by six presidentially appointed commissioners, four of whom must vote together for the agency to take any official action, a requirement that was meant to bolster nonpartisan compromise but has resulted in chronic gridlock.

The inspector general also took issue with the way the FEC regulates presidential inaugural committees, which are nonprofit entities separate from campaign committees. Trump's inaugural committee raised a record-breaking $107 million from more than 1,000 contributors. Its initial disclosure report was 510 pages.

The inspector general found that unlike with campaign committees, FEC policy confers “broad, subjective discretion to the RAD senior manager to determine what potential violations of law warrant further inquiry" when it comes to inaugural committees. It called such a standard “ill-defined and subjective," cautioning that it could create “a reasonable likelihood of inconsistent results and arbitrary or capricious application (in fact or appearance)."

The inspector general also said that unlike political committees, which file their reports to the FEC electronically, inaugural committee disclosure reports are filed on paper to the commission and then manually reviewed by agency staffers — a system the inspector general said was “antiquated and lacks adequate internal controls."

Asked what the agency has done to address the appearance of a conflict of interest at RAD and whether the agency planned on adopting any of the inspector general recommendations, an FEC spokesperson declined to comment.

McGahn, who was appointed White House counsel after serving as the Trump campaign's top lawyer, now heads the government regulations group at the law firm Jones Day. He did not respond to messages seeking comment; in a response for the earlier ProPublica story, he said he doesn't comment on “nonsense." Chacona did not respond to a message seeking comment. A spokesperson for Trump's inaugural committee didn't return a message seeking comment.

The inspector general said that it interviewed FEC lawyers and RAD staffers, and that it obtained and reviewed agency records to conduct its inquiry. Commissioners were notified of the investigators' findings at the end of July.

With its unprecedented haul and its questionable outlays, Trump's inaugural committee drew swift attention from journalists and regulators. The Washington, D.C., attorney general has sued the committee, accusing it of enriching the Trump family business by spending lavishly at Trump-owned properties, claims the committee has denied in court papers. Separately, federal prosecutors subpoenaed the committee's donor records as part of an inquiry into illegal contributions made by foreign nationals.

Both inaugural and political committees are prohibited from accepting contributions from foreign nationals. But Trump's inaugural committee included in its disclosure reports donations from contributors outside the U.S., and RAD relied on the word of the committee that the donors were indeed U.S. citizens, the inspector general report found. Investigators took issue with that practice. They noted that RAD's policy of accepting a committee's “self-certification" wasn't memorialized in any policy, and they recommended that the division set a threshold when such a contribution would trigger further inquiry to independently verify the source of the money.

Fred Wertheimer, whose advocacy group Democracy 21 helped file a 2017 FEC complaint against Trump's inaugural committee, which the agency's general counsel later dismissed, said the head of RAD should have recused herself from overseeing the committee's filings.

“In my view Ms. Chacona had a clear appearance of conflict and never should've gone anywhere near the inaugural committee's report," said Wertheimer, who was derided by Chacona and McGahn in the email exchanges obtained by ProPublica.

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At a Turning Point event in June, the president, addressing the crowd, said, “Let us also show our appreciation to my good friend, Charlie. I'll tell you, Charlie is some piece of work who is mobilizing a new generation of pro-American student activists." On a Turning Point webpage soliciting donations, Trump Jr., a close friend of Kirk's, is quoted as saying, “I'm convinced that the work by Turning Point USA and Charlie Kirk will win back the future of America."

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A hydroponic lettuce farm backed by Trump's eldest son, Donald Jr., applied for at least $150,000 in Small Business Administration funding. Albert Hazzouri, a dentist frequently spotted at Mar-a-Lago, asked for a similar amount. A hospital run by Maria Ryan, a close associate of Trump lawyer and former mayor Rudy Giuliani, requested more than $5 million. Several companies connected to the president's son-in-law and White House adviser, Jared Kushner, could get upward of $6 million.

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The Hidden Influence Of Tommy Hicks, Don Jr’s Hunting Buddy

The Hidden Influence Of Tommy Hicks, Don Jr’s Hunting Buddy

Reprinted with permission from ProPublica.

Over the past two years, the Trump administration has been grappling with how to handle the transition to the next generation of mobile broadband technology. With spending expected to run into hundreds of billions of dollars, the administration views it as an ultra-high-stakes competition between U.S. and Chinese companies, with enormous implications both for technology and for national security. Top officials from a raft of departments have been meeting to hash out the best approach.

But there’s been one person at some of the discussions who has a different background: He’s Donald Trump Jr.’s hunting buddy. Over the past two decades, the two have trained their sights on duck, pheasant and white-tailed deer on multiple continents. (An email from another Trump Jr. pal characterized one of their joint duck-hunting trips to Mexico years ago as “muy aggresivo.”)

Tommy Hicks Jr., 41, isn’t a government official; he’s a wealthy private investor. And he has been a part of discussions related to China and technology with top officials from the Treasury Department, National Security Council, Commerce Department and others, according to emails and documents obtained by ProPublica. In one email, Hicks refers to a meeting at “Langley,” an apparent reference to the CIA’s headquarters.

Hicks’ financial interests, if any, in the matters he has discussed aren’t clear. The interests are much more apparent when it comes to at least one of his associates. Hicks used his connections to arrange for a hedge fund manager friend, Kyle Bass — who has $143 million in investments that will pay off if China’s economy tanks — to present his views on the Chinese economy to high-level government officials at an interagency meeting at the Treasury Department, according to the documents.

Hicks is hardly the first private-sector power broker to emerge in a presidential administration, but he may represent a new subspecies: The Friend of the President’s Kid.

In fact, Hicks’ influence and career overwhelmingly hinge on two people: Trump Jr., his friend of about two decades, and, first and foremost, Hicks’ father. In a roughly 20-year career, Hicks has spent 17 of them working for investment funds and sports teams owned by his wealthy financier dad, Thomas Hicks Sr., and the other three working for a client of his father.

The generally privileged life of the younger Hicks has been speckled with occasional instances of misbehavior, one of them serious. At age 18, he pleaded no contest to misdemeanor assault, reduced from an original charge of felony aggravated assault, after he and two others were arrested in the beating of a fellow high school student at a party. (The victim was also kicked in the face during the assault, according to people familiar with the case. He told police that one of the three assailants — he didn’t say which — asked him, “What is your name, faggot?”) The criminal conviction did not prevent Hicks from being admitted to the University of Texas, where his father was an alumnus, a member of the Board of Regents and soon thereafter the first chairman of the University of Texas Investment Management Company, which manages the school’s endowment and other assets.

As an adult, friends say, Hicks’ carousing ways and occasional belligerent outbursts led some in his circle to bestow a heavily ironic nickname: “Senator Hicks.” His tenure as a director of the soccer team his father owned in Liverpool, England, a decade ago ended right after an email he sent to a heckling fan — “Blow me fuckface. Go to Hell. I’m sick of you.” — surfaced publicly.

Friends say Hicks has matured, particularly since he married and had three daughters. He has risen quickly in recent years. Hicks leveraged his Dallas financial network to become a top Trump campaign fundraiser in 2016 and a vice chairman of the inaugural finance committee; in January, he was named co-chairman of the Republican National Committee. His friends say he is motivated by patriotism.

Hicks also played a behind-the-scenes role, according to two people familiar with the matter and an account by a Turkish journalist, in the freeing last year of Andrew Brunson, an American pastor who was detained for two years by the Turkish government on what the U.S. government viewed as phony charges of spying and helping terrorists.

Even before becoming the second highest-ranking GOP official, Hicks was a frequent White House guest. He liked to have lunch in the White House mess with his half sister, who worked for a time in the communications operation. (The family is not related to Hope Hicks, the former White House communications director.) Hicks would then stroll the halls, according to a former senior administration official, dropping in to offices for impromptu chats with various officials, including Jared Kushner.

Those sorts of connections have given Hicks a convening power, the ability to call together multiple officials. “He basically opened the door for having a conversation with people who I didn’t know but needed to know,” said Robert Spalding, a former senior director for strategic planning at the National Security Council during the Trump administration.

The efforts, detailed in hundreds of pages of government emails and other documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, show that Hicks had access to the highest levels of government to influence policymaking in ways that could lead to painful economic outcomes for the Chinese — and a potentially lucrative result for Hicks’ hedge fund friend, Bass.

“When somebody comes in like this, a hedge fund manager who has an interest in the viability of China’s economy, you’re giving them an opportunity to influence policy,” said Virginia Canter, a former ethics lawyer at the Treasury Department who now serves as chief ethics counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group. (CREW has sued Donald Trump for accepting emoluments from foreign governments.) “The question is why?”

Hicks’ unusual role as a nongovernment employee who opened doors on behalf of both industry and others, Canter said, put him in a gray zone of ethics and lobbying regulations. “He’s acting in a lobbyist role when he may fall outside the lobbyist disclosure rules, and it’s not clear how he benefits financially,” she said. “So the question is: What’s he getting out of it? What are his friends getting out of it? And is the government processing it in a way that ensures the public benefits?”

Bass presented his views on China’s banking system in the office of Heath Tarbert, an assistant secretary at Treasury in charge of international markets and investment policy and a powerful intergovernmental committee that reviews foreign investments in the U.S. for national security concerns. Among the officials at the meeting with Tarbert were Bill Hinman, the director of the division of corporation finance at the Securities and Exchange Commission, and Ray Washburne, a wealthy Dallas restaurant owner and family friend of Hicks’ who was nominated by Trump to head the Overseas Private Investment Corporation.

Hicks and Bass, both Dallas residents and longtime denizens of the financial community there, have invested together since at least 2011, according to securities filings and court records. They’ve owned shares of a publicly traded communications-technology manufacturer. And they were among the biggest creditors to the bankrupt law enforcement contracting company run by Chris Kyle, the ex-Navy SEAL portrayed by Bradley Cooper in “American Sniper.” The managing director of a new investment fund started by Hicks had previously advised Bass on the successful stock-shorting of a Texas real estate lender, according to corporate filings and court papers from a lawsuit in state court in Dallas.

But it’s not clear if Hicks or his family have an investment in Bass’ China-related funds. Reached twice on his cellphone, Hicks declined to be interviewed by ProPublica. In the second call, in June, Hicks didn’t dispute that he and his family have invested in Bass’ funds. But when asked to detail their business relationship, he cut the conversation short. “I’ve got to run. Let me see if I can get back to you,” Hicks said before hanging up. He didn’t call back.

Weeks later, after ProPublica followed up with questions to the RNC, a spokesman responded by emailing a “statement attributed to Tommy Hicks.” It read: “As a businessman, I passionately supported causes I believed in and, if appropriate, would sometimes meet with government officials to promote them. There is nothing wrong with that. I have taken every precaution during my time as Co-Chair of the RNC to ensure there is no conflict of interest between my job here and any personal businesses.” (The spokesperson also emailed a statement on behalf of the RNC: “Tommy has done an outstanding job working on behalf of President Trump and his agenda.”)

Bass, who made his name and fortune by betting against subprime mortgages before the crash and is known for large bets that economies or certain macro trends will turn downward, declined to comment. “I’m not interested in talking with you about my friends or any meetings I have or haven’t had privately with anyone,” he wrote in an email. In a subsequent message, Bass wrote that any suggestion “that we had corrupt intentions in meeting with Treasury officials… is categorically false and defamatory and could negatively affect our business.”

An administration official briefed on the Bass meeting at the Treasury downplayed it as “strictly a listening session.” He said Bass did not ask the attendees to take any actions, nor did the attendees divulge anything about U.S.-China policy. Government ethics officers vetted the federal employees for any conflicts and found none, the official said. He acknowledged that the review didn’t include an examination of any financial relationship between Hicks and Bass.

Spalding said the conversation centered primarily on Bass’ analysis of publicly available records on the Chinese financial system. “I think the thing that I’ve discovered over the past years is that the information in the private sector is better than anything we have in government,” Spalding said of Bass’ presentation. “You have to reach out to where the expertise is. In our country, that’s where the talent is.”

An SEC spokeswoman declined to comment. Washburne, now out of government, didn’t respond to emails seeking comment.

Bass has become a vocal advocate for an aggressive U.S. policy toward China. On Twitter and on cable business channels he’s denounced everything from the country’s Communist Party government to its business practices. Securities filings show Bass raised $143 million from about 81 investors in two funds — investments that would benefit if China’s currency were devalued or the country faced credit or banking crises. In April, in a letter to his investors, Bass wrote that his company, Hayman Capital Management, was positioned for coming problems in Hong Kong and was set up to “maintain a massive asymmetry to a negative outcome in Hong Kong and/or China.”

Hicks’ work on the 5G initiative was extensive.

Over just a few months in late 2017 and 2018, records show, he was part of an informal group led by then NSC official Spalding, that advocated for a strategy in which the federal government would plan out a national policy for 5G. One memo described their goal as the “equivalent of the Eisenhower National Highway System — a single, inherently protected, information transportation superhighway.”

The group conducted multiple meetings and briefings. For example, Hicks, Spalding and others traveled to Samsung Electronics’ Dallas-area offices for one meeting in January 2018.

That same month Hicks attended a 5G meeting that he’d arranged with Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross. Commerce plays a key role in the future of 5G since a division within the agency manages government spectrum and another maintains a list of companies the government believes are, or will become, national security threats. Companies that end up on that list can be effectively shut out from global deal-making. The meeting with Ross focused heavily on the threat of China, said Ira Greenstein, who served as a White House aide and was part of Spalding’s 5G crew.

Hicks was one of a dozen nongovernment employees, including executives from Wells Fargo, Nokia, Ericsson and Google, that Spalding sent reading materials to ahead of a 5G discussion in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. Copied on the email were top Commerce Department officials, a Booz Allen Hamilton contractor and a senior adviser for cybersecurity and IT modernization at the White House Office of Science and Technology. On the agenda? “Mid Band vs High Band” spectrum, “security,” “supply chain,” “financing” and other critical issues.

Hicks wasn’t just a passive observer. On Jan. 2, 2018, the managing director of OPIC, which provides financial backing to American companies expanding into foreign markets, emailed Spalding and others to say that the CEO of a satellite company called OneWeb had a plan to provide worldwide 5G coverage by 2027. Hicks fired back a note from his iPhone. “2027 is too late,” he wrote. “Let’s discuss as a smaller group tomorrow.”

Spalding was forced out of the West Wing in early 2018 after a draft 20-page briefing memo he authored proposing a government-organized national 5G network was leaked, then panned as an attempt to nationalize the wireless broadband industry. Trump has not pursued such an initiative, ultimately deferring to wireless carriers to bid on publicly maintained spectrum and develop their own networks as has traditionally been the case.

Still, the administration has made significant efforts to counter Chinese influence in 5G and related technologies, which are said to be critical for industries such as driverless cars, artificial intelligence, machine learning and much more. In May the Commerce Department barred Chinese telecom equipment manufacturer Huawei from doing business in the U.S. for national security reasons. And the top Department of Defense official in charge of acquisitions also recently announced the creation of a government-approved private marketplace to pair American private equity firms with U.S. technology companies producing products with national security applications to keep Chinese money out of 5G.

It isn’t clear what influence, if any, Hicks had in those decisions. But his profile is only rising. In April, he led a Republican delegation to Taiwan alongside a U.S. government delegation. Hicks met with the country’s president, Tsai Ing-wen, who has lately been positioning her country’s corporations as safer providers of 5G equipment than those in China. Tsai thanked the U.S. for selling arms to Taiwan. She asked Hicks to convey her regards to the Trumps.


IMAGE: Tommy Hicks, Jr.