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Blog Post | December 18, 2017

Steven Mnuchin’s Stealth Conflict of Interest

Ethics in GovernmentFinancial Regulation

The Department of Treasury is big — and I do not mean that negatively.

When an agency has duties as diverse as “steward of U.S. economic and financial systems,” “influential participant in the world economy,” and playing “a critical and far-reaching role in enhancing national security,” it is a very big deal.

Given the Department’s economic influence and the law enforcement responsibilities of the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security, it is not surprising that Treasury’s law enforcement responsibilities are not broadly known.

But being unknown doesn’t mean they are unimportant.

Consider the mission of the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN). FinCEN is tasked with protecting “the financial system from illicit use and combat money laundering and promote national security through the collection, analysis, and dissemination of financial intelligence and strategic use of financial authorities.”

Important stuff! Ever heard about “following the money?” That is what FinCEN does, as misusing the financial system and money laundering are components of a large array of transnational crimes from 9/11 to tax evasion.

A potential transnational crime that, if committed, would likely include money laundering is any international conspiracy to influence the 2016 presidential election that may have occurred.

Toward that end, it is noteworthy that Paul Manafort, who was Chairman of the Trump presidential campaign when Secretary Mnuchin became National Finance Chair, was indicted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller for money laundering on October 30th, 2017. The Special Counsel’s office has issued fifteen search warrants related to the Manafort indictment, obtaining more than 116,000 pages of financial records.”

FinCEN thus has obvious relevance to the Manafort case, as well as other potential legal cases against Trump and his team.

As Treasury secretary, Steven Mnuchin oversees FinCEN and has the authority to appoint its director.

And as far too few people seem to recall, Secretary Steven Mnuchin chaired the Trump Campaign’s National Finance Committee.

It is thus with alarm that I note that nine days after his fellow senior Trump campaign official was indicted for violations within the purview of FinCEN, Secretary Mnuchin announced the appointment of Kenneth A. Blanco as Director of FinCEN.

Jamal El-Hindi had served as Acting Director of FinCEN since June 2016, a period of approximately 17 months before Secretary Mnuchin’s announcement and nearly nine months since Mnuchin’s confirmation as Treasury Secretary. Nothing in the announcement of the change in FinCEN leadership, nor contemporaneous press coverage, explains the timing of this change.

It is therefore extremely worrisome that Mnuchin announced a major shift in personnel for fighting money laundering barely more than a week after his former colleague was indicted for money laundering.

Mnuchin has had a conflict-of-interest, and the timing of this move makes that conflict-of-interest even more relevant and the action suspicious. If Blanco is the right person for the job, Mnuchin’s non-recusal casts unwarranted suspicion upon Blanco. If the suspicions bear out, not only is Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation threatened, but other disputes take on a new valence.

Mueller cannot build from scratch an “Independent Counsel’s FinCEN” with the array of raw data and professional expertise that the actual FINCEN uniquely possesses. If the actual FinCEN is under Mnuchin’s control, as it is, Mueller’s access to critical international financial data is imperiled. Mnuchin could, for example, divert resources recently focused on the flow of money from Russia, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe into the West and instead focus on other legitimate law enforcement priorities (e.g., China and East Asia, sub-Saharan Africa, the Caribbean). Such a diversion would leave no obvious fingerprints but would potentially undermine the development of evidence of utility for Mueller’s team.

The only solution out of the quagmire of Trump’s National Finance Chair supervising an agency critical to Mueller’s investigation is for Mnuchin to recuse himself from supervision of FinCEN during the duration of Mueller’s investigation.

Ethics in GovernmentFinancial Regulation

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