Dig Deep: Conflicts of Interest

This week's installment in our series in which we regularly point you to some of the best investigative reporting you might otherwise miss.

Dig Deep: Conflicts of Interest

Billboard advertising Trump Tower, Manila (Photo by Jay Directo/AFP/Getty Images)

Shortly after he was elected Donald Trump declared, “The law’s totally on my side, meaning, the president can’t have a conflict of interest.” President Trump’s conflicts may escape prosecution, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t corrupt. For example, the new Trump-branded luxury apartment tower in Manila, the capital of the Philippines, will be completed soon. So when President Trump invited President Rodrigo “Rody” Roa Duterte, the autocratic leader of that country, to visit him at the White House, you have to wonder whether it was a diplomatic decision (that he failed to run by the State Department), or a business decision. People do care about conflicts of interest, according to the Office of Government Ethics; it has been deluged with calls in the president’s first 100 days. But the OGE only has the power to advise, not to investigate or enforce. Investigations usually come from Congress, the Department of Justice, or the media. While the first two have been idling, investigative reporters are in high gear. Read on.


Trump’s 10 Troubling Deals with Foreign Power-Players
ProPublica and USA Today
If you were surprised that Trump invited President Duterte to the White House, perhaps it’s time to read, or re-read, this excellent rundown of some of our president’s business deals with foreign powers. In particular, read the entry on the Trump Tower in Manila. Last November, Duterte appointed Trump’s business partner in the deal, Jose E.B. Antonio, as his special envoy to the United States. Cozy.
(Jan. 19, 2017)

Trump Inaugural Drew Big Dollars From Donors With Vested Interests
The New York Times
Last month Trump’s inaugural organizers released a trove of documents reporting donations to January’s festivities. A team of New York Times investigative reporters combed through them and reported on “the big-dollar frenzy of influence-seeking and peacemaking surrounding Mr. Trump’s swearing-in, which raised $107 million, twice as much money as any other inauguration.” Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson topped the list with a donation of $5 million, but he was certainly not alone. It’s a worthwhile, if disquieting, read.
(April 19, 2017)

AP Exclusive: Pesticide maker tries to kill risk study
— Associated Press
AP reporter Michael Biesecker took a look at what a $1 million donation to Trump’s inauguration may have helped secure for Dow Chemical. In January the company’s CEO Ander Liveris was an adviser to Trump as he signed his executive order creating a task force to roll back government regulation. In March, the EPA reversed a ban of its pesticide, chloryrifos, on food and last month Biesecker learned that Dow asked the heads of three agencies to “set aside” (in other words, kill) 10,000 pages of EPA risk studies that concluded chlorpyrifos is harmful to some 1,800 critically threatened and endangered species. Take a look at the letters, which put forth alternative studies commissioned by Dow.
(April 20, 2017)

Congressman Bought Pharma Stock, Pushed Bill That Could Help It, and Bought More
The Daily Beast
This investigation by Justin Glawe exposed a gaping loophole in a law meant to thwart insider trading among members of Congress. The STOCK Act requires legislators to disclose their involvement in domestic IPOs but says nothing about revealing their interests in foreign ones. Rep. Chris Collins, a Republican from Buffalo, danced right through that loophole in 2013 to invest millions of dollars in a tiny Australian pharmaceutical company, Innate Immunotherapeutics, that was seeking FDA approval of a drug to treat multiple sclerosis. Collins eventually wrote language into the Cures Act that would speed up the process and invited friends and family to buy shares at discounted prices — his two kids, his chief of staff, four campaign donors and five other Republican congressmen, including the new Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price. If you aren’t seeing a conflict of interest yet, keep reading, there’s more.
(April 25, 2017)

Exclusive: A New York hotel deal shows how some public pension funds help to enrich Trump
— Reuters
Last January, President Trump made a show of turning management of the Trump Organization over to a trust controlled by his two older sons. But Trump still owns the businesses and he still gets the profits. Now Julia Harte of Reuters reveals a conflict of interest that is quite possibly unconstitutional. She followed the money and learned that the Trump Soho Hotel and Condominium in Manhattan is owned by an investment firm, CIM Group, through one of its real estate funds. The luxury building is marketed and managed by Trump International Hotels for a percentage of the millions in annual revenues. But here’s the rub: public pension funds in at least seven states have invested significant sums into CIM Group’s real estate fund. So if you follow the money — and it’s worth taking a look at Harte’s chart — you see how millions of dollars flow from state pension funds into the pocket of a sitting president.
(April 26, 2017)

Trump condos worth $250 million pose potential conflict
USA Today
An investigative team at USA Today also looked closely at President Trump’s real estate empire. Three reporters spent four months cataloging all the real estate owned by Trump’s companies. They tallied luxury apartments, mansions, and other properties across the country totaling some $250 million. “Unlike developments where Trump licenses his name to a separate developer for a flat fee, “ they wrote, “profits from selling individual properties directly owned by his companies ultimately enrich him personally.” This leaves open the potential for individuals, corporations or foreign governments to buy a unit to court favor. Sales are up according to the investigation, so who are the buyers? That is trickier to nail down because buyers can hide behind the curtain of an LLC.
(April 20, 2017)

Read more in our series highlighting the best investigative reporting. And don’t miss our list of 10 investigative reporting outlets worth following.