Mnuchin’s $2.5 Billion Fund Shows a Need for Tougher Ethics Rules
(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Former Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s new investment fund is flush, courtesy of some of the same Middle Eastern countries he courted closely when he was one of the most powerful U.S. financial regulators.
People familiar with Mnuchin’s dealings had been telegraphing this for months. The Washington Post reported back in February that he was considering launching an investment vehicle backed by sovereign wealth funds in the Persian Gulf region. Bloomberg News put names and numbers on that yesterday, reporting that Mnuchin’s firm, Liberty Strategic Capital, had raised $2.5 billion, largely from the Middle East, including Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund.
Jared Kushner, former President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and an enthusiastic envoy to the Middle East during his White House tenure, is pondering a fund of his own. All this looks like cashing in, because of course it is. The Trump administration’s senior ranks included operators with thin resumes and scant expertise, but distinguished by a willingness to routinely blur the lines between self-aggrandizement and public policymaking.
Financial conflicts of interest aren’t new in Washington, and they’ve been bipartisan. Despite successful post-Watergate efforts to tighten ethics rules, Congress, the Supreme Court, the Federal Reserve and the White House continue to witness collisions between commerce and public service. The presidency itself is uniquely vulnerable when money is in play because the meatiest federal ethic guidelines, by design, don’t apply to it. Trump, one of the Oval Office’s wealthiest inhabitants, exploited that flaw.
It’s unclear whether Congress will pass guidelines protecting the presidency from financial predators of any party, but Mnuchin’s new fund is a reminder that it’s time to strengthen rules governing the financial activities of former Treasury secretaries, too. The Treasury Department has an in-house unit that monitors compliance with ethics guidelines, and agency officials also have to file disclosure reports with the Office of Government Ethics. But when employees leave the agency they are left to their own devices.
Some of this is common sense: People need to make a living. But when former officials join companies they once regulated, it raises questions about how accommodating they might have been in their old jobs. Such questions arose, for example, when former Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, an Obama administration official, went to work on Wall Street after helping banks he regulated navigate the 2008 financial crisis. Geithner didn’t violate any rules, but his move looked bad.
Mnuchin’s fundraising, for its part, is at best wildly unseemly. Perhaps that’s unsurprising, given that he went out of his way to preserve some of his financial interests while running the Treasury Department. The OGE refused to certify Mnuchin’s 2018 financial disclosure form because he disposed of his stake in a film production company by selling it to his fiancée (who later became his wife). The Treasury Department said at the time that it approved the sale and that the OGE merely disagreed for “technical reasons.” But how hard is it to understand that selling an asset to your fiancée isn’t the same as divesting it?
As Treasury secretary, Mnuchin’s spadework in the Middle East was much more controversial. The Trump administration coddled Saudi Arabia even after ample evidence surfaced that the country had orchestrated the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Mnuchin met personally with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman after the killing. Bin Salman is chairman of the Saudi fund backing Mnuchin’s new venture.
Mnuchin was part of an administration that went out of its way to support the Saudis in other ways. The Trump White House rammed through arms deals with the the Saudis and the United Arab Emirates, despite congressional opposition, and it publicly backed both countries in their controversial interventions in the civil war in Yemen.
During his final months as secretary, Mnuchin visited several Middle Eastern countries, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE, Egypt and Israel. Those trips cost taxpayers about $300,000, according to Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a group that monitors financial conflicts in the federal government.
Was Mnuchin fundraising on those trips? Unclear. Was he promoting policies that furthered America’s strategic, economic and human rights goals in the region — or was he looking to one day pad his wallet? Also unclear.
If Mnuchin held himself to a higher standard, this wouldn’t be guesswork. Because it’s still so easy for former government officials to make their way into lucrative post-government jobs, we may not get answers from anyone else, either.
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Timothy L. O'Brien is a senior columnist for Bloomberg Opinion.
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