Top Trump Aide Accused of Breaking Criminal Conflict of Interest Law

'This marks the latest in an already too-long list' of potential violations, says ethics watchdog

President Donald Trump's director of strategic initiatives, New Zealand businessman Christopher Liddell. (Photo: Getty)

Another member of President Donald Trump's inner circle may have blurred ethical lines, this time by breaking criminal conflict of interest laws.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a complaint Tuesday with White House counsel Don McGhan, accusing assistant to the president and director of strategic initiatives Christopher Liddell of improperly participating in meetings that took place between Trump and companies in which Liddell held millions of dollars in stock.

According to CREW:

Criminal law prohibits a federal employee like Liddell from participating personally and substantially in any particular matter to which, to his knowledge, he has a financial interest. On January 23rd, Liddell participated with Trump in a meeting with business leaders from 12 companies, including 10 in which Liddell appears to have held stock worth approximately $2.1 million: Arconic, Corning, Dell Technologies, Dow Chemical, Ford Motor Co., International Paper, Johnson & Johnson, Lockheed Martin, Tesla Motors, and Whirlpool.

The next day, he and Trump held a meeting with General Motors, Ford Motors and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles to discuss new factories. Liddell and his wife apparently held $72,000 of stock in Ford and GM. On February 3rd, Liddell again participated in a meeting with business leaders representing companies in which he apparently owned $2.3 million of stock: BlackRock, GM, IHS Markit LTD, IMB, JP Morgan Chase, Pepsi, Tesla, and Walmart.

The Office of Government Ethics (OGE) has since issued a certificate of divestiture covering those holdings--but as the CREW complaint (pdf) notes, that certificate is dated February 9, well after the meetings in question.

As such, the complaint reads, and given Liddell's likely role in organizing those meetings and developing and/or approving the invite lists, "he may be viewed as having personally and substantially participated in the White House meetings [...] that would have a direct and predictable effect on his financial interests."

Since Trump's inauguration, CREW has sued the president for overstepping the federal Emoluments Clause; sent two letters to the White House regarding advisor Kellyanne Conway's "improper use of office to benefit a private interest;" and notified McGahn of "apparent violations of the Federal Advisory Committee Act because outside advisors, often connected with major corporations, have participated in organized efforts to advise the president without complying with transparency and accountability rules."

Late last week, OGE director Walter Shaub expressed concern that the executive branch apparently thinks it is above many ethical regulations.

As CREW executive director Noah Bookbinder said of Tuesday's complaint, "This marks the latest in an already too-long list of ethics letters CREW has sent to McGahn. The White House must show that potential ethics violations will be taken seriously and thoroughly investigated."

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