Tag Archives: bribery

The Trump crime family cashes in before the Special Counsel closes in

Most of you are already familiar with the three emoluments clause cases filed against Donald Trump for profiting off of foreign governments at his properties as president.

The first case filed by the ethics group CREW (Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington) was dismissed for lack of standing, but that case is currently on appeal.

In the second case brought by the state of Maryland and the District of Columbia (No. 8:17-cv-01596), U.S. District Judge Peter J. Messitte of the District of Maryland ruled that D.C., Maryland can proceed with lawsuit alleging Trump violated emoluments clauses. Judge Messitte rejected an argument made by critics of the lawsuit — that, under the Constitution, only Congress may decide whether the president has violated the emoluments clauses. But Messitte’s ruling also narrowed the lawsuit’s scope to the Trump Hotel in Washington, D.C., saying that the District and Maryland had standing to sue because they could plausibly claim to have been injured by Trump’s receipt of payments from foreign and state governments.

The third case was filed by more than 200 Democratic members of Congress, Blumental et. al v. Trump in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia (No. 1:17-cv-01154), and is presently scheduled for a hearing on a motion to dismiss on June 7, 2018.

The Trump Hotel is only the tip of the iceberg according to reporting over the past week.

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The Trump Swamp: ‘pay to play’ corruption

Over the weekend the New York Times and the Washington Post did some excellent investigative reporting into the shady finances of Donald Trump and his consigliere Michael Cohn. The more we learn about Cohn’s “pay to play” scheme, and the two pending lawsuits challenging Trump’s “pay tp play” scheme under the emoluments clauses of the U.S. Constitution, the more this feckless GOP-controlled Congress has an obligation to investigate Trump’s tax records and financial dealings as president to “drain the swamp”: this is the most corrupt administration in recent American history.

Steve Benen has a decent short summary, The closer one looks at Trump’s finances, the louder the questions become:

Last summer, Donald Trump sat down with the New York Times, which asked whether Special Counsel Robert Mueller will have crossed “a red line” if the investigation into the Russia scandal extends to include examinations of the resident’s finances. “I would say yeah. I would say yes,” he replied, adding, “I think that’s a violation.”

Naturally, this generated no shortage of speculation as to why Trump is so concerned about scrutiny of his finances. For that matter, there’s no reason to separate questions about the president’s finances with the Russia scandal – because as Rachel Maddow has explained on her show more than once, there’s an amazing number of people from Russia who’ve purchased Trump properties over the years. (My personal favorite is the story of Dmitry Rybolovlev, the fertilizer king, who purchased a derelict Florida estate from the future president at an extreme markup.)

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Follow the money: Russian money flowed into Michael Cohen’s business, but to whom did it flow, and for what purpose?

Stormy Daniels lawyer Michael Avenatti is not saying how he came into possession of financial records of Michael Cohen, but at some point he may be required to disclose this to the court.

On Tuesday, Avenatti posted online a “Project Sunlight” executive summary (.pdf) for reporters to review. Avenatti examines Essential Consultants LLC, a Delaware company, on Oct. 17, 2016, just a few weeks before Election Day. The company’s banking records are from the First Republic Bank branch (“First Republic”) located in Manhattan, New York City, New York.

Avenatti alleges that representations made to the bank to open the account “were false when made and continued to be false at all material times based on the activity occurring in the account. This likely constitutes bank fraud.”

The media narrative has been that Essential Consultants LLC was used as a cut out for the payment of the $130,000 to Stormy Daniels, which it was.

But Michael Cohen was also using his company for a “pay to play” scheme to sell his access to Donald Trump as his personal attorney.

Avenatti alleges that “From October 2016 through January 2018, Mr. Cohen used his First Republic account to engage in suspicious financial transactions totaling $4,425,033.46.” Among these transactions include:

  • Chief among these suspicious financial transactions are approximately $500,000 in payments received from Mr. Viktor Vekselberg, a Russian Oligarch with an estimated net worth of nearly $13 Billion. Mr. Vekselberg and his cousin Mr. Andrew Intrater routed eight payments to Mr. Cohen through a company named Columbus Nova LLC (“Columbus”) beginning in January 2017 and continuing until at least August 2017.
  • Columbus Nova is a private equity firm founded in 2000 with over $2 billion in assets. Mr. Intrater is the CEO of Columbus Nova. Columbus Nova is the U.S. investment vehicle for Renova Group, a multi-national company controlled by Mr. Vekselberg. Renova group holds investments in various interests, including mining, oil, and telecommunications .
  • Also included in these suspicious financial transactions are four payments in late 2017 and early 2018 totaling $399,920 made by global pharmaceutical giant Novartis directly to Essential in four separate transactions of $99,980 each (just below $100,000).
  • In addition, Essential received $200,000 in four separate payments of $50,000 in late 2017 and early 2018 from AT&T.
  • Essential also received a $150,000 payment in November 2017 from Korea Aerospace Industries LTD.

There are a several other financial transactions highlighted in Avenatti’s executive summary.

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Did Trump’s lawyer John Dowd raise the prospect of a pardon to witnesses?

The New York Times, and others, reported this week that President Trump’s lawyer John Dowd – who has resigned – broached the idea of President Trump’s pardoning two of his former top advisers, Michael T. Flynn and Paul Manafort, with their lawyers last year, according to three people with knowledge of the discussions. Trump’s Lawyer Raised Prospect of Pardons for Flynn and Manafort:

The discussions came as the special counsel was building cases against both men, and they raise questions about whether the lawyer, John Dowd, who resigned last week, was offering pardons to influence their decisions about whether to plead guilty and cooperate in the investigation.

The talks suggest that Mr. Trump’s lawyers were concerned about what Mr. Flynn and Mr. Manafort might reveal were they to cut a deal with the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, in exchange for leniency. Mr. Mueller’s team could investigate the prospect that Mr. Dowd made pardon offers to thwart the inquiry, although legal experts are divided about whether such offers might constitute obstruction of justice.

Mr. Dowd’s conversation with Mr. Flynn’s lawyer, Robert K. Kelner, occurred sometime after Mr. Dowd took over last summer as the president’s personal lawyer, at a time when a grand jury was hearing evidence against Mr. Flynn on a range of potential crimes. Mr. Flynn, who served as Mr. Trump’s first national security adviser, agreed in late November to cooperate with the special counsel’s investigation. He pleaded guilty in December to lying to the F.B.I. about his conversations with the Russian ambassador and received favorable sentencing terms.

Mr. Dowd has said privately that he did not know why Mr. Flynn had accepted a plea, according to one of the people. He said he had told Mr. Kelner that the president had long believed that the case against Mr. Flynn was flimsy and was prepared to pardon him, the person said.

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The social media leg of the Special Counsel’s Russia investigation comes into focus (Updated)

Cambridge Analytica is a company created by Robert Mercer, a billionaire patron of right-wing outlets like Breitbart News. Mercer’s daughter, Rebekah, is a board member. Donald Trump’s campaign manager, Steve Bannon, is a former vice president of Cambridge Analytica, and the former editor of Breitbart News. Trump confidant Gen. Michael Flynn also had “a brief advisory role” with Cambridge Analytica. Cambridge Analytica, the shady data firm that might be a key Trump-Russia link, explained:

Cambridge Analytica specializes in what’s called “psychographic” profiling, meaning they use data collected online to create personality profiles for voters. They then take that information and target individuals with specifically tailored content.

* * *

In June 2016, the Trump campaign hired Cambridge Analytica to take over its data operations.

We know from the reporting of Nicholas Confessore and Danny Hakim at the New York Times that Jared Kushner, who was charged with overseeing Trump’s digital operations, is the reason Cambridge Analytica joined the Trump campaign.

Kushner hired a man named Brad Parscale, a Texas-based digital expert who had worked previously for team Trump. According to Confessore and Hakim, Cambridge Analytica convinced Parscale (who has since agreed to be interviewed by the House Intelligence Committee) to “try out the firm.” The decision was reinforced by Trump’s campaign manager, Steve Bannon, a former vice president of Cambridge Analytica.

It’s not clear to what extent Cambridge Analytica helped (Parscale denied that Cambridge was of any use in a recent 60 Minutes interview), but we do know that Trump’s digital operation was shockingly effective. Samuel Woolley, who heads the Computational Propaganda project at Oxford’s Internet Institute, found that a disproportionate amount of pro-Trump messaging was spread via automated bots and anti-Hillary propaganda. Trump’s bots, they reported at the time of the election, outnumbered Clinton’s five to one.

Pro-Trump programmers “carefully adjusted the timing of content production during the debates, strategically colonized pro-Clinton hashtags, and then disabled activities after Election Day.”

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None Dare Call It Bribery

* If this corrupt, selfish, and destructive behavior is not already illegal, what do we have to do to make it illegal?
* If/when it is illegal, how to we remove the barriers to enforcement, so as to make sure the laws are enforced in practice?

Posted by John Denker:

Let’s talk about government corruption, especially the system whereby powerful interests make huge “campaign donations” and then “coincidentally” benefit from special provisions in the laws. This system is spectacularly corrupt and harmful to public policy. Although it has gotten worse lately, it has been a problem for more than 100 years. For example, Teddy Roosevelt – a Republican – sounded the alarm in 1910, in his famous “New Nationalism” speech.

A good discussion of the current situation can be found the recent book Republic, Lost by Lawrence Lessig. If you can’t get your hands on the book, you can get much of the same information by watching Lessig’s lectures, which are available online for free. Our esteemed blogmeister, Michael Bryan, has posted a review in this forum.

I agree with almost everything Lessig has to say … except for the main conclusion and main theme of the book! He says over and over again that even though the system is corrupt and ill-serves the public interest, virtually all of it remains technically legal. I’m not convinced.

As a point of logic, of course it is possible for something to be contrary to the public interest yet still be legal, and surely some of what goes on in Washington falls into this category … but not all of it. It seems to me that a great deal of it is illegal, just structured in such a way that the perpetrators cannot easily be caught.

Lessig seems to underestimate the breadth of the exiting bribery laws. He seems to imply, over and over again, that the statute applies only to cash-on-the-barrelhead transactions, quid-pro-quo, where the quid is explicitly, directly, and instantly connected to one particular quo. He talks about “bags of cash”, as if that were the only way to make payment for a bribe. I am not a lawyer, but to my eyes, the statute seems much broader than that. You can check for yourself: 18 USC 201 – Bribery of public officials and witnesses.

  • The statute clearly says “directly or indirectly” … not just directly.
  • It clearly speaks of “anything of value” … not just “bags of cash”.
  • It clearly speaks of “influence” … not just immediate, single-factor causation.

To convict someone of bribery, you have to prove intent. This is as it should be.  Lessig emphasizes this point, and I agree.  Furthermore, I agree that if you limit attention to the congressmen themselves, proving intent might be tricky in some cases. However, in other cases, including some of the examples Lessig cites, the politicians demonstrate clear intent, e.g. as discussed here and here.

Furthermore, Lessig overlooks the fact that giving a bribe is just as illegal as receiving a bribe. In most cases, the lobbyist has obvious intent, since influencing legislation is the lobbyist’s advertised business plan and raison d’être. Similarly, the the big-money “contributors” have blazingly obvious intent. Big corporations spend billions of dollars on lobbying. They would not do this if they did not expect to get something in return. Lessig calls it “return on investment”.

If planning to get a big return on investment is not “intent” within the meaning of the bribery statute, I don’t understand why not. Can somebody explain this?

I reckon that prosecuting a corrupt lobbyist is about as hard as prosecuting a mafia don. It requires years of effort, and even then is not always successful.

This leaves us with two questions:

  1. If this corrupt, selfish, and destructive behavior is not already illegal, what do we have to do to make it illegal?
  2. If/when it is illegal, how to we remove the barriers to enforcement, so as to make sure the laws are enforced in practice?

Lessig suggests some partial solutions, although he recognizes that his suggestions are not entirely practical, and “the prognosis is not good”. I have some additional suggestions about this.

Lessig argues that corruption defeats the goals of the Left … and defeats the goals of the Right. It drains hundreds of billions of dollars per year from the treasury, to no good purpose. I would add that it defeats the purpose of the Constitution, insofar as it bypasses all the checks and balances and gives virtually unlimited power to large corporations. It defeats the purpose of having elections, insofar as both parties are in the pocket of the special interests. This infuriates the Tea Party guys, infuriates the Occupy guys, and infuriates a lot of people in between.

When power becomes so vast and so corrupt that laws cannot be enforced and elections cannot solve the problem, some people start talking about secession and/or armed insurrection. The very name of the Tea Party is an allusion to insurrection. Sharron Angle, while a Republican candidate for US Senate, spoke openly of “second amendment remedies”. Rick Perry, the Republican governor of the largest state, spoke openly about secession.

It’s hard to imagine anything more important than this. The cost of inaction is extraordinarily high, and could get even higher. All this is discussed in more detail, with examples and footnotes et cetera, at http://www.av8n.com/politics/republic-lost.htm.

Comments, anyone?