Ethics group wants Ivanka Trump investigated for tax break program

UPDATED ON: JANUARY 4, 2019 / 6:10 PM / CBS/AP

An ethics watchdog group asked the Justice Department on Friday to investigate whether President Donald Trump's daughter Ivanka violated federal conflict-of-interest law by advocating for an Opportunity Zone tax break program from which she could potentially benefit.

The complaint from the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington follows an Associated Press investigation last month. The AP found that Trump and her husband Jared Kushner, both White House advisers, could benefit from the Opportunity Zones program they pushed that offers tax breaks to developers who invest in downtrodden communities.

AP reported Kushner owns a $25 million to $50 million non-management stake in Cadre, a real estate investment firm which has announced plans to invest in several cities under the Opportunity Zones program.

Separately, the couple has interests in at least 13 properties held by Kushner's family firm that may qualify for the tax breaks because they are in Opportunity Zones in New Jersey, New York and Maryland.

"Government employees should never work on matters affecting their own finances, but Ivanka Trump appears to have done just that," CREW Executive Director Noah Bookbinder said in a statement.

There's no evidence the couple played a part in selecting any of the nation's 8,700 Opportunity Zones, and the Kushner Cos. hasn't indicated it plans to seek tax breaks under the new program. But Trump and Kushner could profit even if they don't do anything because Opportunity Zone property values have risen due to interest from developers and investors.

CREW noted that Ivanka Trump's stake in Cade was worth between $5 million to $25 million when she joined the government after her father's election win. That's grown to as much as $50 million, according to her latest financial disclosure report, the group said.

Jared Kushner's finances

The CREW complaint says that, under federal law, Kushner's financial interests are considered of value to Ivanka Trump as well.

In a 12-page letter sent to Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, CREW's Bookbinder said that as a result of the 2017 decision by Ivanka Trump and Kushner to "retain a sprawling portfolio of investments after entering government," the couple "assumed responsibility for exercising due diligence to avoid participating in any particular matter that directly and predictably affects the interests of the companies they retained."

Ivanka Trump, Bookbinder wrote, "may have failed to live up to this responsibility."

Bookbinder told the AP that CREW's complaint focused on Ivanka Trump because "there is so much public information about her role in the Opportunity Zones program."

President Trump's praise

The AP report noted that Ivanka Trump publicly promoted the program and coordinated with its main congressional sponsor, Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina. President Trump lauded his daughter last February for "pushing this very hard." Hours after the AP story ran last month, Ivanka Trump tweeted her public support for Opportunity Zones and appeared at a White House event promoting the program.

AP reported that Kushner also backed the program, but had more limited involvement behind the scenes.

A spokesman for Abbe Lowell, the couple's ethics lawyer, dismissed the CREW complaint as "meritless." Ivanka Trump "adheres to the ethics advice she has received from counsel about what issues she can work on and those to which she is recused," said the spokesman, Peter Mirijanian.

The Justice Department declined to comment, a spokeswoman said.

Zone designations

The White House did not provide a response to the complaint. Last month, administration spokesman Hogan Gidley said the White House had "nothing to do with" the designations of the zones.

The zones, which channel where investments are made, were chosen by state governors and agencies and then approved by Treasury Department officials.

Bookbinder said that if the Justice Department looks into the complaint, it would most likely be probed as a civil matter. But he cautioned that the department is "not obligated to tell us what they're doing."