Errol Louis: Conflicts of interest unavoidable between Trump's businesses and presidency
Michael Bloomberg had to deal with similar issues when he was New York mayor, he says
Editor’s Note: Errol Louis is the host of “Inside City Hall,” a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.
Don’t expect much clarity or relief from Donald Trump’s scheduled announcement of how he intends to wall off his business interests from his work as President. All signs – and a recent precedent involving another New York billionaire politician – suggest that conflicts of interest will remain big, ugly, glaring, unavoidable and largely unresolved.
With weeks to go until Inauguration Day, journalists have already cataloged a wide range of situations in which Trump’s business interests clash with his job in the White House. His organization owns a hotel in Washington that is currently trying to renegotiate its lease from the federal government – the same government Trump will be leading.
Trump runs a tower on Wall Street whose tenants include a large number of people being regulated, investigated and/or prosecuted by federal agencies, all of which ultimately answer to the White House.
He also has business deals with banks and businesses in India, Scotland, China, Germany and other countries – and the full extent of the next president’s debts, partnerships and ownership interests isn’t even known, thanks to Trump’s refusal to release his tax records.
Trump’s obfuscation of his business interests stands in stark contrast to the experience New Yorkers had with ex-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a billionaire who ran three times for mayor and confronted many of the same issues now being raised with Trump.
Bloomberg was more open than Trump, and at least gave lip service to the idea of preventing conflicts – but even so the effort was only partly successful.
Most of Bloomberg’s fortune, estimated at $4 billion when he first ran for office in 2001 – came from a 72% ownership stake in the financial information firm he started, Bloomberg L.P. After the surprise victory by Bloomberg, a serious concern about possible conflicts of interest came to light: His main business, providing data terminals and financial information to Wall Street firms, put him in a financial relationship with major New York companies – including Citigroup, J.P. Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs – that were also lobbying the city government for contracts, tax abatements and other favors.
Despite some noises about possibly placing his company and other assets into a blind trust, Bloomberg never fully relinquished control of the firm. He eventually placed much of his investments in the hands of a politically active financial manager, Steven Rattner, but did not agree to remain completely in the dark about how Rattner invested his money.
The limits of Bloomberg’s involvement were allegedly spelled out by an advisory opinion from the city’s Conflicts of Interest Board, a remarkably weak board with no enforcement power whose members are all appointed by the mayor. Bloomberg later secured an updated advisory opinion from the board that allowed his money to be invested in a hedge fund and other riskier businesses.
In the end, as ace investigative reporter Wayne Barrett discovered, Bloomberg greatly blurred the lines between his personal business and the city’s. His personal assistants were simultaneously on the payrolls of the city, and a deputy mayor, Dan Doctoroff, ended up running Bloomberg L.P. after leaving government service, one of many city employees to cruise through a revolving door between the mayor’s public and private roles.
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Most importantly, many Bloomberg clients – including Merrill Lynch, which owned a major stake in Bloomberg L.P. – were never barred from lobbying the city government: Barrett reported that at least 33 Bloomberg clients’ firms were listed as doing business with the city while he was mayor.
Bloomberg’s three terms were relatively scandal-free, and none of the problems that did crop up involved the mayor’s company. But there are few, if any, billionaires whose wealth isn’t tied to or influenced by government in some way, making Trump’s path to avoiding conflicts and scandal even tougher than Bloomberg’s.