Trump administration quietly eased sanctions on Israeli billionaire

Dan Gertler was accused in 2017 of using his connections to arrange "opaque and corrupt mining and oil deals". PHOTO: DAN GERTLER/FACEBOOK

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - The Trump administration quietly moved in its final days to ease sanctions imposed in late 2017 on an Israeli billionaire who had been punished by the Treasury Department for corrupt and abusive mining practices in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The reversal by the Treasury came after an appeal by lobbyists with close ties to former US President Donald Trump who were hired by Dan Gertler, the Israeli billionaire, including the lawyer Alan Dershowitz, who helped represent Trump during his first impeachment, and Louis J. Freeh, a former FBI director.

Gertler was accused in 2017 by the Trump-era Treasury Department of using his connections to the former Congolese president, Joseph Kabila, to arrange "opaque and corrupt mining and oil deals" that cost the citizens of Congo more than US$1 billion (S$1.3 billion) in lost revenue.

The reversal by the Treasury drew immediate condemnation by human rights advocates, who said they hoped that the Biden administration would move to reverse the action.

"Letting Dan Gertler off the hook sends a message to the world's most corrupt businesspeople that the US will let them walk free after a bit of lobbying," said Ms Sasha Lezhnev, the deputy director of policy at The Sentry, a nonprofit group that tracks African war criminals and foreigners who try to profit off them.

Mr Calvin Mitchell, a spokesman for Ms Janet Yellen, who could be confirmed as soon as Monday (Jan 25) as Treasury secretary, said the department was aware of the move but declined to comment when asked if the agency would reconsider.

The licence that the Treasury issued Jan. 15 effectively gives Gertler, who is based in Israel, a year to do business with US banks and other companies, while federal officials evaluate if they will more formally remove the sanctions. As part of the agreement, Gertler will hire outside monitors to confirm that he is now honouring standards set by the United States.

The licence also unblocks funds of Gertler's that have been held in financial institutions based in the United States, including Citibank, Deutsche Bank, Bank of New York Mellon and Wells Fargo.

Sanctions were first placed on Gertler in December 2017 under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, a law passed in 2016 that allows the United States to impose sanctions on foreign business executives or foreign government officials implicated in "gross violations of internationally recognised human rights".

Gertler was found to have used his friendship with Kabila to act as a middleman for mining sales in Congo, requiring other companies to go through Gertler to do business with the Congolese state, costing the country more than US$1.36 billion in revenue, the Treasury Department said in 2017.

"Gertler is an international businessman and billionaire who has amassed his fortune through hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of opaque and corrupt mining and oil deals in the Democratic Republic of the Congo," the Treasury Department said in 2018, as it expanded the sanctions against him.

The application to issue a new licence that allows United States companies to do business with Gertler was handled by the law firm Arnold & Porter. Mr Baruch Weiss, a lawyer at the firm who handled the matter, declined to commenton Sunday, as did Mr Dershowitz.

Gertler as of 2019 had hired Mr Dershowitz and Mr Freeh, as well as Mr Gregory A. Paw, a former federal prosecutor, to work on the matter, with the team then targeting the Treasury and State departments to try to get the changes made, lobbying disclosure reports show. Also registered to lobby on the matter is Mr Gary Apfel, a lawyer who like Mr Dershowitz was involved in several successful pardon appeals to Mr Trump in recent months.

Mr Erich C. Ferrari, a lawyer who represents US and foreign companies on sanctions issues, reviewed the license that the Treasury issued Jan 15 and said he was surprised at how broadly it appeared to allow United States companies to work with Gertler, despite the sanctions in 2017 and 2018.

"As hard as it is for me to believe that a licence this broad was issued and exists, I have to say that it is indeed a licence authorising Gertler and companies owned 50 per cent or more, directly or indirectly, to engage in business with and through US banks," Mr Ferrari said.

The Sentry recommended in a statement on Sunday that the US banks not unblock Gertler's money or "open accounts or otherwise conduct transactions for or on behalf of Gertler and his network until this matter is fully investigated and resolved."

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