WASHINGTON — Democrats in Congress raised ethical concerns on Tuesday about connections between Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and a billionaire Republican donor who stands to benefit financially from the Trump administration’s decision to lift sanctions on Russian oligarch Oleg V. Deripaska’s companies.
In a letter to Mnuchin, two senior Democratic lawmakers said the Treasury secretary’s connection to an entertainment business owned in part by the donor, Len Blavatnik, a major investor in Deripaska’s giant aluminum company, Rusal, was a potential conflict of interest.
“We are seeking an explanation as to how you managed your own potential conflicts of interest arising from your personal and professional relationships with major Rusal shareholder Len Blavatnik, a key beneficiary from your decision to delist Rusal,” the lawmakers, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings of Maryland, the chairman of the House Oversight and Reform Committee, and Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, said in the letter.
The questions about Mnuchin’s possible conflicts came as Democrats put new pressure on the Trump administration over the terms of its deal to lift the sanctions on Rusal, its parent company and another associated firm.
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A confidential document disclosed last week by The New York Times showed the terms of the agreement may have been less punitive toward Deripaska than advertised, leaving family members and allies with substantial stakes in the company and potentially freeing him from hundreds of millions of dollars in debt.
Tony Sayegh, the Treasury Department’s assistant secretary for public affairs, said Mnuchin had “no business relationship” with Blavatnik and that any implication of a conflict of interest or ethical problem was “absurd.” A spokesman for Blavatnik said he had never done business directly with Mnuchin.
Sayegh said Mnuchin and Blavatnik “did know each other personally,” adding that “Mr. Blavatnik is a well-known Republican donor,” and was when Mnuchin served as finance chairman for President Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign.
The administration had announced the sanctions in April 2018 on seven Russian oligarchs and their companies, including Deripaska, his giant aluminum company, Rusal, and two linked companies in retaliation for “a range of malign activity around the globe” by Russia, Mnuchin said at the time.
The Treasury Department repeatedly postponed carrying out the sanctions against Deripaska’s companies, citing the risk of collateral economic damage from the disruption of global markets. The department ultimately moved to lift them entirely after striking a deal to restructure the companies that it said forced major concessions by Deripaska. The process of lifting the sanctions was concluded Sunday.
One of Rusal’s major shareholders, SUAL Partners Ltd., was founded by Blavatnik and Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg. Blavatnik, a dual U.S.-British citizen born in Soviet-era Ukraine, has not had sanctions placed on him. But Vekselberg, like Deripaska, came under sanctions from the Treasury Department last year and also has drawn the interest of the special counsel investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election.
The administration’s decision to delay and ultimately lift the sanctions on Deripaska’s companies prompted outrage on the part of Democrats and Russia hawks among Republicans while also leading to a surge in the stock price of Rusal.
The document outlining the terms of the deal to lift the sanctions showed that SUAL will own 22.5 percent of Rusal after the restructuring of Deripaska’s holdings. The rise in Rusal’s stock price has increased the value of SUAL Partners’ holding in the company by about $800 million relative to the value last year shortly after the sanctions were announced.
In a separate letter to Mnuchin on Monday, Sen. Mark Warner of Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, expressed concern about the influence that could be exerted on Rusal under the Treasury deal by SUAL and a Russian bank under sanctions, VTB, as well as by Deripaska, his family and entities connected to them.
On Tuesday, the Democrats who lead the House Ways and Means, Foreign Affairs, Intelligence and Financial Services committees said in a statement that they were “considering additional legislative actions to ensure that Treasury and these companies comply with the agreement in letter and in spirit, and to prevent something like this from happening again in the future.”
While Blavatnik had given mostly to Democrats through the end of 2014, his giving has escalated drastically and shifted sharply right since then. He did not donate to Trump’s campaign or the super PACs that supported it, but family members gave $243,000 to the Republican National Committee during the campaign. And two of Blavatnik’s companies, including his main U.S.-based company, Access Industries, donated $2.5 million to the super PAC supporting Republican Senate candidates in 2016,plus another $1 million in 2017, according to Federal Election Commission records.
After Election Day, Access Industries donated $1 million to Trump’s inaugural committee, and Blavatnik attended inaugural events.
The questions from Democrats about a possible conflict of interest stem from an acquisition, announced in April 2017, by an arm of Access Industries, of a stake in a movie production company called RatPac Entertainment. The deal gave Access “a piece of” a joint film deal venture that RatPac had formed in 2013 with one of Mnuchin’s companies, Dune Entertainment, to finance Warner Bros. films, according to an article by the Hollywood Reporter posted on Access’ website.
By the time Blavatnik’s acquisition was announced, Mnuchin had been serving as Treasury secretary for more than two months. He had stepped down as chairman of Dune Entertainment before his confirmation, at which time Louise Linton, who was then his fiancée and is now his wife, was named “interim CEO in an uncompensated capacity,” while Mnuchin worked to divest from the company, according to a letter sent by the Treasury Department last year to Wyden, whose 2016 re-election campaign received nearly $11,000 from Blavatnik and his wife.
Mnuchin has fully divested from Dune Entertainment and RatPac-Dune, Sayegh said. Mnuchin valued the RatPac-Dune partnership with Warner Bros. at between $5 million and $25 million, according to his personal financial disclosure filings, one of which showed that he sold entities associated with the venture in May 2017.
The statement did not list buyers for the entities, but Sayegh said they were not sold to Blavatnik or Access.
Sayegh also said that neither Mnuchin nor Linton were aware of or involved in Blavatnik’s purchase until it was publicly announced, so it was “not necessary” for Mnuchin to seek ethics guidance or to recuse himself from the decision-making process on the sanctions.
Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, who pressed Mnuchin on his relationship with Blavatnik this month, said it was “very troubling” that he did not seek ethics guidance or recuse himself from the sanctions deliberations. Blavatnik’s spokesman said “there was never at any point any contact between Mr. Blavatnik and Mr. Mnuchin in connection with the sale or operations of RatPac-Dune.”
The Treasury Department said that Mnuchin attended only one party on Blavatnik’s yacht, but would not provide details about the circumstances.
Mnuchin’s brother, Alan Mnuchin, a financial adviser, had represented RatPac-Dune in a deal to sell its film library to Warner Bros. Alan Mnuchin rejected any suggestion that he had been brought into the deal by Blavatnik or that Blavatnik might have purchased the stake in RatPac to try to curry favor with his brother.
In January 2018, Linton attended an exclusive 50-person charity dinner in London that was also attended by Deripaska.
At the time of the dinner, which was for the anti-poaching organization Space for Giants, the Treasury Department had been directed to put together a report on oligarchs on which it might place sanctions, which would come to include Deripaska.
A spokesman for Space for Giants said that the guests — including Prince William, former Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, Russian-British newspaper owner Evgeny Lebedev and a member of the Saudi royal family — were not provided one another’s names before or after the event.
Sayegh said that Linton, who donated $50,000 to Space for Giants in 2017, according to its annual report, “was unaware” that Deripaska was at the dinner that she “never interacted with” the oligarch.
“She recalls sitting next to Prince William at the dinner,” Sayegh said.