August 15, 2019

Warren Demands Answers from Trump Transition Advisor About Reports of Ethically Questionable Behavior and Conflicts of Interest During and After Transition

Tom Barrack's Alleged Efforts to Court Wealthy Saudis During Trump Transition Now Paying Off for Private Equity Firm He Leads

Key Parts of Warren Legislation to Strengthen Presidential Transition Ethics Recently Passed Senate

Text of the Letter (PDF)

Washington, DC - United States Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) sent a letter to Thomas J. Barrack, Jr, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of real estate and private equity firm Colony Capital, Inc., expressing concern about recent reports of Mr. Barrack's ethically questionable behavior and conflicts of interest during and after his time as a "key member" of the Trump presidential transition team. According to reports, Mr. Barrack's efforts to court Saudi officials during the presidential transition have resulted in lucrative investments in his private equity firm by the Saudi government wealth fund.

A recent report in Bloomberg showed that Mr. Barrack's "relationship with the Saudis blossomed" as he "worked with key members of the Trump transition" and that he traveled to Saudi Arabia in December 2016 to meet with Saudi officials-including then-Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the managing director of the Saudi sovereign wealth fund.  While Mr. Barrack did not hold an official title on the transition team, he reportedly "worked with key members of the Trump transition" and helped "shap(e) the incoming cabinet."  The report indicated that Mr. Barrack's company, Colony Capital, "is beginning to see some upside" from the efforts he made during the Trump transition to court Saudi officials. According to the report, Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (PIF) has joined Colony Capital's investment in a $4 billion digital infrastructure investment vehicle, and Colony and PIF are discussing an arrangement in which the Saudis would become co-investors in a Hollywood studio.

"Your efforts to leverage your close friendship with the President and to boost your personal financial interests are deeply troubling and raise serious questions about the bounds of ethical behavior for presidential transition teams and advisors," wrote Senator Warren in her letter to Mr. Barrack.

Senator Warren's letter noted her introduction of the Transition Team Ethics Improvement Act in 2018 after a Government Accountability Office (GAO) investigation she requested revealed significant gaps in the ethics framework for individuals working on the Trump presidential transition. Key provisions of the legislation recently passed the Senate unanimously as part of the Presidential Transition Enhancement Act of 2019.Specifically, these provisions would:

  • Require eligible presidential candidates to develop and release transition team ethics plans before the election and disclose how they will address their own conflicts of interest if elected president;
  • Require transition team members to sign an ethics-specific code of conduct, and prohibit transition team members from working on matters that affect their financial interests; and
  • Establish a set of minimum requirements for transition team ethics plans, including a requirement that candidates develop an enforcement mechanism for their code of conduct.

The Transition Team Ethics Improvement Act was also included in the For the People Act of 2019 (H.R.1), House Democrats' first piece of legislation introduced in the 116th Congress, and in Senator Warren's Anti-Corruption and Public Integrity Act, the most sweeping anti-corruption legislation since Watergate. 

"Your behavior during and after the transition raises serious questions about your conflicts of interest and demonstrates why it is so important that this legislation becomes law," Senator Warren continued in her letter. "Presidential transitions are critical periods when policy is crafted, nominees are selected, and agendas are set. Individuals who participate in this process should adhere to the highest ethical standards."

Senator Warren's letter asked Mr. Barrack to explain why he did not register as an agent of a foreign government and whether he is currently advising the President on U.S. government policy or policy regarding the Saudi government. The senator also requested Mr. Barrack detail his firm's involvement with Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund, and to what extent the Trump Administration was aware of his business investments during the transition. Finally, the senator questioned whether Mr. Barrack or other Colony employees were involved in the Administration's policies or policy plans related to digital infrastructure.

Senator Warren requested a response to her inquiry by no later than August 23, 2019.