The State Department is investigating the whereabouts of a $5,800 bottle of whiskey the Japanese government gave to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in 2019, according to two people briefed on the inquiry and a document made public on Wednesday.
It was unclear whether Pompeo ever received the gift, as he was traveling in Saudi Arabia on June 24, 2019, the day that Japanese officials gave it to the State Department, according to a department filing on Wednesday in the Federal Register documenting gifts that senior American officials received in 2019. Such officials are often insulated by staff members who receive gifts and messages for them.
American officials can keep gifts that are less than $390. But if the officials want to keep gifts that are over that price, they must purchase them. According to the filing, the State Department said the bottle was appraised at $5,800.
The department also took the unusual step of noting that the whereabouts of the whiskey is unknown. Similar filings over the past two decades make no mention of any similar investigations.
“The department is looking into the matter and has an ongoing inquiry,” the filing said.
Pompeo, through his lawyer William A. Burck, said he had no recollection of receiving the bottle of whiskey, and did not have any knowledge of what happened to it or that there was a department inquiry into its whereabouts.
“He has no idea what the disposition was of this bottle of whiskey,” Burck said.
Under the Constitution, it is illegal for an American official to accept a gift from a foreign government, and gifts are considered property of the U.S. government. The founders included the measure to stop foreign governments from gaining undue influence over American officials. Any officials caught accepting such gifts can face civil penalties, or impeachment if they are still in office.
The State Department provided no other details about the bottle or the investigation. According to two people briefed on the matter, the U.S. government was never paid for the bottle and the department has asked its inspector general to determine what happened to it.
Trump administration officials routinely flouted guidelines about day-to-day government issues like record-keeping and ethics, and paperwork filed for gifts was often incomplete.
The disclosure about the missing bottle of whiskey is the latest issue to arise about how the State Department operated under Pompeo, who has discussed with aides the possibility of running for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.
At Pompeo’s urging, President Donald Trump fired an inspector general who was investigating whether Pompeo and his wife misused government resources. The State Department’s new inspector general released a report in April saying Pompeo had violated ethics rules when he and his wife asked staff members to do personal tasks like taking care of their dog.
Stanley M. Brand, a criminal defense lawyer, ethics expert and former top lawyer for the House of Representatives, said that in his four decades working in Washington, he could not recall an instance in which legitimate questions had arisen about whether an official improperly took a gift from a foreign country.
“Like a lot of what occurred in the Trump era, this arises from a mix of rules and regulations that were previously obscure and rarely invoked,” Brand said. “I have been doing ethics stuff for 40 years and this has never been on the top of the list or on the list of problems.”
It was unclear what kind of whiskey the Japanese gave to Pompeo.
Most Japanese whiskeys taste similar to those made in Ireland, Scotland or the United States. But prices for aged Japanese whiskeys have risen drastically in recent years into the thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars.
The increase has been attributed to demand for Japanese whiskeys, said Stefan van Eycken, the author of the 2017 book “Whisky Rising” about Japanese whiskey. Demand fell off significantly in the 1980s, prompting a decrease in production, but picked up again around 2008, increasing the value of Japanese whiskey, particularly decades-old varieties.
“There is enormous demand from well-heeled collectors (especially in Asia) who will gladly pay the equivalent of a nice sports car for a single bottle of really old Japanese whiskey,” he wrote in an email.