Nepotism, conflict of interest, Jared Kushner

By Dorothy Inman-Johnson
Special to the Outlook

The convenient excuse, by the President, his family, and staff, every time they are caught violating ethics or the law, is that they are business people, not politicians. Sorry, that one has been milked for all it is worth. It should not be that hard to understand laws every other American who does business with the federal, state or local government must strictly follow. Every government grant application or staff training manual includes pages that must be signed acknowledging that the grantee or staff understands and will comply with nepotism and conflict of interest policies/ laws, and provides a penalty for noncompliance. So it should not be a mystery that the top federal official charged with imposing these laws on others must set the example from the top.
Nepotism and conflict of interest laws are simple and easy to understand. The president and his family just feel they are above the law and can get away with anything they darn well please. And, so far, they have done exactly that. The nepotism law simply states, “A public official may not appoint, employ, promote, advance, or advocate for appointment, employment, promotion, or advancement in or to a civilian position in which he/ she is serving or over which he/ she exercises jurisdiction or control of any individual who is a relative of the public official.” The legal definition of conflict of interest is “a situation in which a public official, contrary to the obligation and absolute duty to act for the benefit of the public, exploits relationships for his/her personal benefit.”

President Trump’s appointment of his daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner as his top White House advisors is a clear violation of the nepotism law; and the family’s use of their government positions for the personal enrichment of their real estate businesses is an egregious violation of the federal conflict of interest law. Kushner may even be in danger of criminal charges if a report in The New Yorker is true. According to the report, Kushner companies obtained $184 million and $325 million in loans while in his role as White House advisor while holding controlling interests in the family companies. It is alleged that he has used his government position for favors in exchange for huge infusions of cash to prop up his personal businesses laboring under huge debt.

The President excuses these abuses by noting neither Jared nor Ivanka receive a salary for their positions. However, not being on the payroll is no exemption from the nepotism and conflict of interest laws. I have served as a volunteer on the city’s Friends of Our Parks Foundation Board of Trustees for over 25 years; and every year, each Board member is required to complete a Financial Disclosure Form declaring that we have no conflict of interest. The law, also, specifies a penalty for failing to comply. Florida law states, “Any person who is required to file full and public disclosure of financial interests…who fails to timely file is assessed a fine of $25 per day for each day late up to a maximum of $1500; however this $1500 limitation on automatic fines does not limit the civil penalty…for statements filed more than 60 days after the deadline”. Such disclosures are, likewise, required to be filed by all public officials and candidates for public office. These disclosure laws are common practice at the federal, state, and local government levels; so if elected officials at the highest level of government in the U.S. cannot understand that these laws also apply to them for the protection of the public’s interest, they do not deserve to hold those offices/positions.

Locally, a city manager lost his job for allegedly violating the conflict of interest law by accepting expensive football game tickets and a discounted rate from a City of Tallahassee vendor for his daughter’s wedding. The city manager’s infraction does not even come close to Jared Kushner’s alleged use of his government position for a $509 million personal payoff.

Non-profits, social service agencies, and any others seeking public funding are well aware of requirements on applications to acknowledge that they comply with conflict of interest laws and laws against use of tax funds for lobbying. It, therefore, should not be so difficult for the president, his family, and staff to understand that the same laws apply to them. Perhaps Mueller’s investigation will help them see the light.

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