Lawmakers, advocates want review of gov't 'promotion' of Trump's Florida resort

Some critics say the episode is yet another example of Trump's divisive and discriminatory ideology.
By Doug G. Ware and Mike Bambach   |   April 25, 2017 at 4:41 PM
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April 25 (UPI) -- President Donald Trump's administration is once again the subject of an ethics complaint -- this time for the State Department's much-criticized decision to promote the president's private Mar-a-Lago Florida resort on its website this month.

Common Cause sent a letter to three Trump administration officials Tuesday expressing concern for what it says was a virtual taxpayer-funded advertisement for the president's private club, which he purchased in 1983. The article was published by the State Department and promoted by U.S. embassies in Great Britain and Albania.

"The article describes the private club in glowing terms and explains that President's use of the club as a 'winter White House' fulfills the dream of Mar-a-Lago's original owner, socialite and cereal heiress Marjorie Merriweather post," the letter states. "State Department use of resources to promote a private business owned by President Trump constitutes a misuse and abuse of taxpayer dollars."

The letter was also addressed to Office of Government Ethics Director Walter Shaub.

A number of Democratic lawmakers have also questioned the promotional material since it appeared online April 5, through the State Department's ShareAmerica website. The watchdog group American Oversight has also called for an investigation.

"Why is Donald Trump's State Dept promoting the President's private club?" House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., tweeted Monday.

"Don't be surprised if next the FDA gives a 5 star review to the chocolate cake at Mar-A-Lago," Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., added.

The department says ShareAmerica is a "platform for sharing compelling stories and images that spark discussion and debate."

Tuesday, the department had removed the article, but some lawmakers and Common Cause are calling for an investigation into the matter -- to determine how and why the government's executive diplomatic branch decided to promote a privately-held business.

Federal law bars government employees and public servants from using their office to benefit a private business venture -- a tactic Trump's administration has already been accused of.

In February, Common Cause and other advocates lodged a different ethics complaint against White House adviser Kellyanne Conway for her promoting Ivanka Trump's fashion line during an interview with Fox News.

"The State Department's publication of the article and promotion of the article by U.S. embassies clearly warrant investigation," Common Cause's letter continued.

The Office of Government Ethics, an independent federal agency, is responsible for handling such complaints, but it has no power to enforce actions. All it can do is make a recommendation for discipline. In Conway's case, the OGE advised the administration to discipline her -- but the White House did nothing.

Tuesday's letter was sent to Shaub, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, State Department Inspector General Steve Linick and State Department ethics official Katherine McManus.

After the posting was removed, the State Department apologized for "any misperception" about the post -- a similar explanation the White House gave for taking no disciplinary action against Conway.

"The intention of the article was to inform the public about where the President has been hosting world leaders," read a message on the ShareAmerica website. "We regret any misperception and have removed the post."

Since taking office in January, Trump has visited the Palm Beach, Fla., resort seven times -- for a total of 25 days as president -- and entertained foreign dignitaries there, including Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

The new complaint further echoes concerns that Trump is not able to reconcile his private interests with the public duties of his office -- a worry that dates back to the early days of his presidential campaign. Trump has said he's relinquished the business duties of his empire to relatives to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

Some critics argue that the episode is yet another example of what they say is the president's divisive and discriminatory ideology.

"Membership at the club provides the highest privileges and an elite lifestyle reserved for a select few," the resort states on its website. "Having evolved from a stately residence to one of the most important addresses in the world, Mar-a-Lago is the island of Palm Beach's finest example of living history combined with modern elegance."

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