Trump conflict of interest concerns over links with law firm run by Philippine government official


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “Trump conflict of interest concerns over links with law firm run by Philippine government official” was written by Oliver Holmes, Southeast Asia correspondent, for theguardian.com on Friday 14th July 2017 03.38 UTC

Donald and Ivanka Trump’s companies employ a law firm managed by a Philippine government official, the Guardian has found, the latest in a string of potential conflicts of interests stemming from the first family’s global business empire.

By hiring a firm run by a high-ranking member of the Philippine government, Trump opens himself to accusations of wittingly or unwittingly paying a foreign official to secure the interests of his private business.

Elpidio C Jamora Jr is one of four named partners at the Manila-based law office that acts as a representative to register trademarks for both the Trump Organization and Ivanka Trump’s personal brand.

The lawyer also serves as the chairman of the country’s largest state-owned and run construction company, the Philippine National Construction Corporation (PNCC), according to the body’s website and Jamora’s resumé.

Ethicists have warned that the Trump Organization – of which the president maintains ownership despite handing control to his sons – presents ways for foreign governments to seek to influence Trump.

For example, the Philippine government may attempt to hold up or expedite trademarks to leverage Trump. This raises “some serious conflict of interest questions”, said Jordan Libowitz, from the transparency advocacy group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

The director general of Philippines’ intellectual property office can grant or reject trademark applications under a broad set of rules and acts under “the supervision” of the secretary of trade and industry.

Trump has been using the law firm since at least 2007, a global trademark registration database search found.

The search showed the firm represented his daughter Ivanka Trump, an assistant to the president, for three trademark applications for her fashion and accessories line in the Philippines since Trump was inaugurated. All are pending.

“If she gets these [registrations] because of her position in government or relation to the president, that becomes a very serious issue,” said Libowitz. “Basically it’s just laws in place to keep people from benefitting from their official position.”

The vast Trump corporation presents an unprecedented problem for the US in its foreign policy. It is one that previous presidents have gone out of their way to avoid by liquidating their assets before taking office or putting them in a blind trust – something Trump has not done.

Libowitz said that while Trump’s relationship to Jamora is “not a smoking gun, it’s a red flag”.

He added: “The question it raises is whether doing business with this official in a legal capacity was getting benefits for the president in this lawyer’s official government capacity.”

Trump is opening a skyscraper in Manila, a project built by Jose EB Antonio, a Filipino developer who was named as special trade envoy to Washington last year, meaning the US president’s family and a Philippine government appointee are business partners.

Ivanka Trump was the face of promotional material for the building, although these posters have since been removed. The developer, Century Properties, said it does not have any direct dealings with PNCC. Asked if the project had received any preferential treatment since Trump took office, a spokesperson said more than 94% of the units were sold a year before his presidency.

Ivanka Trump’s company, Ivanka Trump Marks LLC, has also been scrutinised after it was granted seven trademarks in China since her father rose to power. Three were granted on the same day Trump met the Chinese president, Xi Jinping.

While she does not manage her company, Ivanka Trump still owns the business and is frequently seen wearing clothes from her collection. She has put her business in a trust, run by family members.

The US leader has showered notable praised on Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte, congratulating him on an “unbelievable job” in his fight against illegal drugs that has left thousands dead. While Duterte’s sullied human rights record has drawn condemnation from the European Union and other world leaders, Trump has invited him to the White House.

The Guardian did not find anything to suggest that Trump and his daughter were shown favouritism in their Philippine trademark applications or condominium development.

However, the link between the Philippine government and the Trumps’ businesses does cast doubt over Trump’s ability to separate his role as a developer and magnate from the presidency.

Jamora’s law firm – Carag Jamora Somera and Villareal – is based out of Manila’s central business district, Makati, and has been operating for 20 years. Jamora took an oath in front of the former Philippine president Benigno Aquino III in 2014, according to a local news report. The PNCC is majority-owned and has been run by the department of trade and industry since 2004.

Jamora told the Guardian he had no conflict of interests between his public and private roles as “[the PNCC] does not have any dealings whatsoever with the Trump Organization”. He added that the PNCC is now focused on toll-road construction.

He did not work directly on Trump trademark applications, he said, adding that there were only nine or 10 attorneys at the company.

Another founding partner of the firm, Carlo A Carag, used to work in the government department of finance, and occasionally served as officer-in-charge while the finance secretary was travelling.

The White House declined to comment and referred all questions to Trump’s business.

Alan Garten, executive vice-president and chief legal officer at the Trump Organization, said he had “never heard of or had any dealings with this firm”.

He added: “To the extent they have provided certain trademark-related services, they would have been hired by our outside trademark attorneys to act in a very limited capacity as local counsel.”

Still owning a business that carries her name, the president’s daughter – who has a formal White House role of special assistant to the president – has also found it difficult to disconnect her corporate and government positions.

Her personal public relations advisor referred the Guardian to her company, which also said it had no dealing with the law office, which would have been hired by “outside trademark attorneys”.

In May, family members of Ivanka Trump’s husband (and White House adviser) Jared Kushner staged events in China to woo wealthy investors into luxury developments, with the prospect of receiving US green cards in return.

Members of the audience were reportedly told that if they stumped up at least half a million dollars for the project, they could become US residents under a controversial cash-for-residency program that is known in China as the “golden visa”.

In Indonesia, the US president’s business partner, a billionaire developer and media mogul, said he might run for president in Indonesia’s 2019 elections.

Known locally as Hary Tanoe, the tycoon is building two Trump developments: a six-star luxury resort in Bali and a resort outside Jakarta with a championship golf course designed by former world No 1 Ernie Els. The resort will have 300 villas and an adjacent theme park.

Both projects are due to be completed while Trump is in office.

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