Review of Biden White House ethics shows potential conflicts mostly addressed
The vast majority of senior Biden White House officials are either free of conflicts of interest with stock holdings or are on the way to being so, according to a review of nearly 50 financial disclosure reports filed by high-level officials by CREW. It is not clear, however, if all of them have committed to divest their stock holdings.
Of the 48 disclosures CREW reviewed, 42 of the officials who filed them either did not report holding any publicly traded stock, had already divested the entirety of their stock holdings or made arrangements to do so. Four of the White House officials provided no indication that they would divest their stock, though the stock interests of some of these officials appear to fall below the threshold that would trigger conflict of interest concerns. In addition, 2 officials agreed to divest some of their stock holdings.
Notably, several senior White House employees whose holdings drew significant scrutiny in the months prior to and following President Biden’s inauguration have made strong efforts to mitigate conflict-of-interest concerns. Coronavirus Response Coordinator Jeff Zients, a multimillionaire who had extensive business involvements prior to his appointment, resigned from all outside positions and divested from individual stockholdings prior to joining the Biden administration; his initial financial disclosure shows that he has retained only diversified mutual funds, cash accounts, and real estate properties. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, whose investments in companies such as Microsoft, Facebook, and Google raised eyebrows after he was tapped to join the White House, received a Certificate of Divestiture (CD) in May showing his commitment to completely divest from all individual stockholdings. Most recently, Domestic Policy Council Director Susan Rice—whose extensive investments in the technology, pharmaceutical, and energy sectors would likely have required recusals from some of her official duties—appears to have agreed to divest the vast majority of her assets.
Rice and her spouse sold off many of their stock holdings in April 2021, according to a periodic transaction report that included sales of stock in companies including Amazon, Abbvie and Dupont. In July 2021, Rice obtained a CD to divest most of their remaining stock holdings. The CD and periodic transaction report do not account for all of Rice’s stock portfolio–for example, they excluded some of her or her spouse’s investments in Canadian companies–but the Office of Government Ethics only issues CDs to officials who commit to divest from all conflicting financial interests and all financial interests that are similar to any included in the CD. When granted by OGE, a CD will defer capital gains treatment resulting from the sale of the conflicting assets, provided the proceeds are reinvested in non-conflicting assets like diversified mutual funds or U.S. Treasuries. Accordingly, Rice appears to be on a path to resolving any conflicts of interest initially raised by her stock portfolio.
The Office of Government Ethics has not certified all of the financial disclosures CREW reviewed, so the information in some may still change. In addition, some or all of the officials who have not yet indicated that they are divesting their stock holdings may still do so.
It is important for White House officials to divest their stock holdings to resolve potential conflicts of interest so they may work on any issue that might come before them during their time in government. If officials do not divest, they must recuse from participating in certain matters that could conflict with their financial interests.
According to the latest financial disclosures obtained by CREW, some Biden White House officials retained individual stock holdings. For example, Assistant to the President and Director of Presidential Personnel Catherine Russell has a significant interest in the investment management company Blackrock through her spouse, Tom Donilon, Chairman of the BlackRock Investment Institute. Donilon holds over $1 million in unvested restricted Blackrock stock units and over $1 million in Blackrock stock. If he does not divest his interest in Blackrock, Russell will have to recuse from certain matters that would affect the company’s financial interests, although she is less likely than other White House officials to encounter such conflict-of-interest issues as White House personnel matters usually won’t affect a company’s financial interests, unless a key company officer is under consideration for an administration position.
Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of Scheduling and Advance Ryan Montoya also disclosed investments in cryptocurrency totalling between $467,006 – $1,080,000 that he appears to have retained. Like other investment assets, cryptocurrency can create a conflict of interest for federal employees. As a result, Montoya will have to recuse from participating in any particular matters that would directly and predictably affect his financial interests in cryptocurrency.
Four other White House officials appear to be retaining stock holdings that fall below the de minimis thresholds, including Assistant to the President and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki.
In a few instances, White House senior advisors in temporary positions were able to avoid public disclosure reporting requirements altogether because they were designated to serve as special government employees and their salaries do not meet the reporting threshold established by law. For example, Senior Advisor Anita Dunn, Senior Advisor for the COVID Response Team Andy Slavitt, and Vaccinations Coordinator Bechara Choucair were not required to file public financial disclosure reports since they were expected to serve less than 130 days and to be paid less than $132,552 per year, although they were likely required to disclose their holdings and address their conflicts of interest in a confidential report reviewed by White House ethics officials.
With respect to full-time White House staff, it remains clear that most high-level officials in the Biden White House have observed ethical best practices in divesting themselves from assets that could conflict with their official duties. Given the time it takes for certificates of divestiture to be publicly released, it’s also possible that more divestments by administration officials are currently being arranged or will be in the future. CREW will be monitoring these developments and updating this analysis if and when such documents become available.