Rep. Jackie Speier Trump's investments are earning him money in office. We need to know if it's clean.

Congress has grounds for an investigation, and the American people deserve to find out what his businesses are up to.
Deck chairs are lined up near swimming pools at the Trump Ocean Club International Hotel & Tower in Panama City
Deck chairs are lined up near swimming pools at the Trump Ocean Club International Hotel & Tower in Panama City, Panama, on April 21, 2014.Susana Gonzalez / Bloomberg via Getty Images
Get the Think newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By Rep. Jackie Speier, Democratic representative from California’s 14th Congressional District

Why is it Donald Trump has received millions of dollars from potentially corrupt investments while serving as president, and no one is paying attention? Financial crimes were not investigated by special counsel Robert Mueller because they were beyond his jurisdiction, but it is time for Congress to pick up the mantle.

The money has come from the Trump Ocean Club in Panama, Trump Hotel Toronto and Trump SoHo, New York City. In his 2018 financial disclosure, Trump reported receiving more than $2.7 million from Trump Ocean Club and Trump Toronto Hotel the year before. And in November 2017, he sold a valuable contract to manage the Trump SoHo Hotel for an undisclosed price. For reasons unknown, that transaction was not reported as required by the Ethics in Government Act.

Publicly reported facts more than justify an in-depth effort to determine whether crimes have been committed by the president or anyone else involved in these investments.

Ample public reporting on these Trump projects has suggested possible instances of money laundering, financial fraud, sales fraud, obstruction of justice and violations of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act’s requirements for due diligence, including turning a blind eye to possible bribery in the Toronto project. These are not isolated cases; they could be elements of corrupt enterprises, possibly in violation of the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act. Such serious claims warrant a congressional investigation.

Under a remarkably parallel set of circumstances in 1973, Vice President Spiro Agnew resigned. While Agnew was in office, he received kickback payments for construction contracts that had been awarded years before he was elected. After an investigation by a Republican Department of Justice, Agnew stepped down.

The main difference between these two cases: Trump’s alleged corruption appears to be much more serious than Agnew’s.

Publicly reported facts more than justify an in-depth effort to determine whether crimes have been committed by the president or anyone else involved in these investments. These facts clearly support congressional authority to obtain relevant financial records, including the president’s tax returns.

Get the think newsletter.

A striking feature of the Trump project teams is that so many had criminal backgrounds. Public reports suggest the SoHo, Toronto and Panama projects were fronts for money laundering by Russians and even drug smugglers such as David Murcia Guzman, who is now in federal prison for criminal activity unrelated to the Trump organization. One of Trump’s agents in Panama, Alexandre Ventura Nogueira, was arrested for fraud in connection with Trump Ocean Club sales (he later fled the country and still hasn’t been brought to justice). He and other Trump project brokers in Panama were later alleged to have engaged in violations of bond financing restrictions, according to an investigation by ProPublica and WNYC, and the bondholders reportedly lost as much as $120 million.

In one case, investors were awarded damages in Canada after they successfully argued Trump and the company of his Toronto developer, Alex Shnaider, had misled them into believing their investments would offer significantly higher returns.

Shnaider, who not only had no real estate experience, also had previously helped run Seabeco. Shnaider’s father-in-law, Boris Birshtein, founded Seabeco and has been accused in congressional hearings in 2017 of having links to both the KGB and the Russian mob. (Birshtein has denied both KGB and mob ties, and law enforcement has apparently never filed charges against him, despite a reported investigation.)

In the SoHo hotel project, Trump partnered with two men, Tevfik Arif and Tamir Sapir, who both worked with organizations affiliated with the KGB.

Donald Trump, Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump allegedly promoted these projects with false statements. In New York, Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump faced possible criminal charges for false statements about the sales pace of units in the SoHo project. They avoided those charges by entering into a civil settlement with the buyers that prohibited them from voluntarily cooperating with the district attorney.

SIGN UP FOR THE THINK WEEKLY NEWSLETTER HERE

In addition, the Raiffeisen Bank, an Austrian bank whose links to the Russian mob were also flagged in the 2017 congressional testimony, loaned the Trump Toronto project $310 million, according to bankruptcy records. (Raiffeisen has more than once declined to comment about the purported links.) It repeatedly extended repayment deadlines and even failed to foreclose when the project defaulted, and it was still owed $301 million when the project went bankrupt, money that left Austria for Canada and never returned, according to the bankruptcy records.

The Financial Times also reports that Shnaider might have obtained some of the funding he invested in the Trump Toronto project by bribery. (Shnaider's lawyer didn't address the contention in the FT article.)

Congress may need to consider legislation requiring a president to place personal business investments in a blind trust while in office.

For financing of the SoHo Hotel, the Bayrock Group property developer for the project recommended an Icelandic bank, the FL Group, because, it was “closer to Putin,” according to a former Bayrock Group employee who sued the organization for racketeering and other complaints. Experts analyzing the case told the Daily Telegraph that the transaction with the FL Group could constitute tax fraud. (The case was later settled, though Bayrock disputed the employee’s claims.)

These are the projects that have paid Trump millions of dollars while he has been serving as president, and detailed allegations are abundantly available in the public record. The connections with Russians in these investments are insidiously abundant, too much so, I believe, to be a coincidence. I am sending letters to the House Committee on Oversight and Reform and the House Committee on Financial Services asking them to investigate these issues.

Congress needs to determine not just whether crimes have been committed, important as that is, but also whether the president’s business dealings have compromised him with foreign governments or with commercial entities. Congress may need to consider legislation requiring a president to place personal business investments in a blind trust while in office.

If Donald Trump had a shred of honor, if he truly loved the flag he so theatrically hugs, he would recognize that he has deeply dishonored the nation he has sworn to serve by taking money while president from notorious businesses, and that he should step down like Agnew did. But Trump shows no sign that he will resign.

It is the rule of law itself that we must now protect. Republicans especially should consider that the rule of law safeguards our personal freedom, religious liberty, property rights and other precious liberties. Their voice is needed so that Americans understand that protecting the rule of law rises above partisan interest.

There is no place for corrupt, dirty money in the White House. One of Congress’ duties to the American people is to investigate and expose corruption. The voters have a right to know the truth, and it is time for us in Congress to turn on the lights.