White House Financial Disclosures: Kushner Retains Scores of Real Estate Holdings

President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and daughter are holding onto scores of real estate investments — part of a portfolio of at least $240 million in assets — while they serve in White House jobs, according to financial disclosures released publicly late Friday.

Jared Kushner, Trump’s senior adviser, resigned from more than 260 entities and sold off 58 businesses or investments that lawyers identified as posing potential conflicts of interest, the documents show.

But his lawyers, in consultation with the Office of Government Ethics, determined that his real estate assets, many of them in New York City, are unlikely to pose the kinds of conflicts that would trigger a need to divest.

“The remaining conflicts, from a practical perspective, are pretty narrow and very manageable,” said Jamie Gorelick, an attorney who has been working on the ethics agreements for Kushner and Ivanka Trump.

Kushner began selling off the most problematic pieces of his portfolio shortly after Trump won the election, and some of those business deals predate what is required to be captured in the financial disclosure forms.

For example, Kushner sold his stake in a Manhattan skyscraper to a trust his mother oversees. Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump and their three minor children have no financial interest in that trust, his lawyer said.

The Kushner Companies, now run by Jared Kushner’s relatives, are seeking investment partners for a massive redevelopment.

The White House on Friday began released financial disclosure forms for more than 100 or its top administration officials — a mix of people far wealthier, and therefore more entangled in businesses that could conflict with their government duties, than people in previous administrations.

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer described the business people who have joined the administration as “very blessed and very successful,” and said the disclosure forms will show that they have set aside “a lot” to go into public service.

The financial disclosures — required by law to be made public — give a snapshot of the employees’ finances as they entered the White House. What’s not being provided: the Office of Government Ethics agreements with those employees on what they must do to avoid potential conflicts of interest.

Those documents will never be made public, White House lawyers said, although the public will eventually have access to “certificates of divestiture” issued to employees who are seeking capital gains tax deferrals for selling off certain assets.

Kushner, for example, received certificates of divestitures for his financial interests in several assets, including several funds tied to Thrive Capital, his brother Joshua Kushner’s investment firm.

He and Ivanka Trump built up companies the documents show are worth at least $50 million each and have stepped away from their businesses while in government service. Like the president himself, however, they retain a financial interest in many of them. Ivanka Trump agreed this week to become a federal employee and will file her own financial disclosure at a later date.

Jared Kushner’s disclosure shows he took on tens of millions of dollars of bank debt in 2015 and 2016, including liabilities with several international banks whose interests could come before the Trump administration.

Financial information for members of Trump’s Cabinet who needed Senate confirmation has, in most cases, been available for weeks through the Office of Government Ethics.

The president must also file periodic financial disclosures, but he is not required to make another disclosure until next year.

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Georgian Entrepreneurs Look to Silicon Valley for Funding

Boris Kiknadze, chief executive of Pawwwn, took a deep breath as he looked out to the crowd of Silicon Valley venture capitalists and began his pitch.

With just 10 minutes to speak, Kiknadze rapidly described his business idea — Pawwwn, an online payment and management system to make transactions easier for pawnshop owners and their customers. The pain point for pawn shops is payment. Pawwwn takes away that pain, he said.

For months, Kiknadze and his co-founder had developed Pawwwn in his home country of Georgia before getting on a plane for San Francisco. Since the firm launched in March, Kiknadze has had 20 customers trying out the service.

But with 1,400 pawnshops in Georgia and 12,000 more in the U.S., Kiknadze saw a big opportunity. And to achieve that, he needs cash — $1 million, which he said he would use to launch Pawwwn in the U.S.

Competing for investors

Kiknadze is part of Startup Georgia, a project administered by Georgia’s Innovation and Technology Agency, that connects U.S. experts and investors with startups in Georgia.

More than 250 entrepreneurs tried out in Georgia to qualify for a week of training in Tbilisi, the nation’s capital. Among those 50 who participated in the training, 20 were selected for seed funding and three months of additional training with a Silicon Valley expert with weekly videoconferencing meetings.

Of those, eight were chosen to travel to the U.S. for a boot camp and to pitch to investors directly.

Georgia, a country of fewer than 4 million people, is looking to the success of small countries, such as Estonia and Israel, to pitch itself as a burgeoning tech hub, said Mark Iwanowski, founder and president of Global Visions-Silicon Valley, which provided the U.S. support for the program.

For U.S. investors, typically reluctant to invest beyond U.S. tech hubs, there is an opportunity to get more value in overseas companies, where labor costs are lower, he said. To attract these investors, foreign companies need to incorporate in the U.S. and set up a team here.

Over the past week in Silicon Valley, the Georgian entrepreneurs received one-on-one mentorship training as they refined their pitches. They heard from lawyers on protecting intellectual property and listened to venture capitalists talk about how to approach investors.

“If a venture capitalist says they love it, it kind of doesn’t mean anything,” said Steve Goldberg, operating partner at Venrock, a venture firm. “My advice is to have people on the team who understand venture-speak.”

“Understand what the investor is looking for,” said Ron Weissman of Band of Angels, Silicon Valley’s oldest seed fund. He suggested approaching investors seeking a conversation — “I’m not here to raise money. I’m here to get a sense of what it would take to interest you.”

Tech’s next ‘unicorn’?

That is the kind of approach honed by Vamekh Kherkheulidze, founder and medical adviser to ORsim, a Georgian operating room virtual reality simulator.

By slipping on a virtual reality headset and a special glove that gives all the sensations of holding instruments and operating on a person, medical students can better learn how to become surgeons, Kherkheulidze said. And that’s important, because there’s a shortage of surgeons both in the U.S. and worldwide.

From potential investors, ORsim is looking “for supporters,” he said. “We promote new ways of education and we want investors who understand that.”

Still, his ambition is big. “We want to expand and expand fast,” Kherkheulidze said. Already, ORsim, with $35,000 in pre-seed funding from Startup Georgia, has an appendectomy simulator.

“Our hope is to be a unicorn,” Kherkheulidze said, referring to the term used to describe startups worth more than $1 billion in valuation. But in addition to greatly improving surgical training worldwide, he sees his company as a way to help his home country.

“If we are worth $1 billion, you can increase the economy. What was Skype’s influence in Estonia?” he said, referring to the Estonian internet communication service bought by Microsoft for more than $8 billion.

After the pitches, the entrepreneurs mingled with investors. No one got investment on the spot, but most are hopeful and are following up with meetings next week.

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California Desert Super Bloom Attracts Tens of Thousands

Rain-fed wildflowers have been sprouting from California’s desert sands after lying dormant for years — producing a spectacular display that has drawn record crowds and traffic jams to tiny towns like Borrego Springs.

 

An estimated 150,000 people in the past month have converged on this town of about 3,500, roughly 85 miles (135 kilometers) northeast of San Diego, for the so-called super bloom. 

 

Wildflowers are springing up in different landscapes across the state and the western United States thanks to a wet winter. In the Antelope Valley, an arid plateau northeast of Los Angeles, blazing orange poppies are lighting up the ground. 

What is a super bloom?

 

But a “super bloom” is a term for when a mass amount of desert plants bloom at one time. In California, that happens about once in a decade in a given area. It has been occurring less frequently with the drought. Last year, the right amount of rainfall and warm temperatures produced carpets of flowers in Death Valley. 

 

So far this year, the natural show has been concentrated in the 640,000-acre (1,000-square-mile) Anza Borrego State Park that abuts Borrego Springs. 

 

It is expected to roll along through May, with different species blooming at different elevations and in different areas of the park. Anza Borrego is California’s largest state park with hundreds of species of plants, including desert lilies, blazing stars and the flaming tall, spiny Ocotillo.

 

‘Flowergeddon’

Deputies were brought in to handle the traffic jams as Borrego Springs saw its population triple in a single day. 

 

On one particularly packed weekend in mid-March, motorists were stuck in traffic for five hours, restaurants ran out of food, and some visitors relieved themselves in the fields. Officials have since set up an army of Port-A-Pottys, and eateries have stocked up. The craze has been dubbed “Flowergeddon.” 

 

Locals call those who view the tiny wildflowers from their cars “flower peepers.” Thousands of others have left their vehicles to traipse across the desert and analyze the array of delicate yellow, orange, purple and magenta blooms up close in the park. Many carting cameras have taken care to step around the plants.

 

Tour groups from as far as Japan and Hong Kong have flown in to catch the display before it fades away with the rising temperatures. 

Rare sightings tracked

 

Wildflower enthusiasts worldwide track the blooms online and arrive for rare sightings like this year’s Bigelow’s Monkey flower, some of which have grown to 8 inches (203 millimeters) in height. The National Park Service has even pitched in with a 24-hour wildflower hotline to find the best spots at the state park.

 

“We’ve seen everything from people in normal hiking attire to people in designer flip-flops to women in sundresses and strappy heels hike out there to get their picture. When I saw that, I thought, ‘Oh no. Please don’t go out there with those shoes on,’” laughed Linda Haddock, head of the Borrego Springs Chamber of Commerce.

 

On a recent day, a young woman sat among knee-high desert sunflowers and shot selfies against the backdrop of yellow blooms that looked almost neon in contrast to the brown landscape. A mother jumped in the air as her daughter snapped her photo among yellow brittlebushes. 

Blooms draw insects, birds 

The blooms are attracting hungry sphinx moth caterpillars that munch through acres. The caterpillars in turn are attracting droves of Swainson hawks on their annual 6,000-mile (9,656-kilometer) migration from Argentina.

 

“It’s an amazing burst in the cycle of life in the desert that has come because of a freakish event like a super bloom,” Haddock said. “It’s exciting. This is going to be so huge for our economy.”

 

Desert super blooms always draw crowds, but lifetime residents said they’ve never seen the natural wonder attract tens of thousands like this time. The park is about a two-hour drive from San Diego and three hours from Los Angeles. 

A lot of rain, a lot of blooms

 

This year’s display has been especially stunning, experts say. The region received 6½ inches (165 millimeters) of rain from December to February, followed by almost two weeks of 90-degree temperatures, setting the conditions for the super bloom. Five years of drought made the seeds ready to pop. 

 

Humans also helped. Park staff, volunteers and female prisoners have been removing the Saharan Mustard plant, an invasive species believed brought to California in the 1920s with another plant, the date palm. Saharan Mustard stole the thunder of another super bloom six years ago, said Jim Dice, research manager at the Anza-Borrego Desert Research Center.

 

“It completely took over the usual wildflower fields and starved out the wildflowers so what we had were giant fields of ugly mustard plant,” Dice said. “That galvanized the community, which depends on tourism largely brought in during the good wildflower years.”

 

Lia Wathen, a 35-year-old investigator in San Diego, took a Monday off from work so she wouldn’t miss the desert flowers.

 

“Any single color that you can think of, you’re going to find it right here,” said Wathen, walking with her Maltese dogs, Romeo and Roxy, before stopping to examine a magenta bloom on a spikey Cholla cactus.

 

Sandra Reel and her husband drove hundreds of miles out of their way when they heard about the super bloom. 

 

“It is absolutely phenomenal to see this many blooming desert plants all at the same time,” she said. “I think it’s probably a once-in-a-lifetime thing.” 

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Report: Two Democrats Will Vote to Confirm Supreme Court Nominee

Two Democrats facing tough re-elections in GOP states said Thursday they will vote for President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee, even as the Senate Democratic leader strongly warned Republicans against changing Senate rules to confirm Judge Neil Gorsuch.

 

Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York had tough words for his Republican counterpart, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, in an interview with The Associated Press.

 

“He’s bound and determined to change the rules and trample on Senate tradition” in order to get a conservative justice approved, Schumer said of McConnell. “Let the public judge whether that is a good thing.”

 

Schumer spoke shortly after Sens. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota became the first Democrats to announce their support for Gorsuch, a Denver-based appellate judge. They join all 52 Senate Republicans, who argue Gorsuch is impeccably qualified to join the high court and accuse Democrats, and Schumer in particular, of playing politics by opposing him.

The Senate confirmation vote is expected late next week. Unless 60 senators support Gorsuch, which would require six more Democrats to join Heitkamp and Manchin, Republicans would have to unilaterally change Senate rules to allow Gorsuch to be confirmed with a simple majority vote in the 100-member Senate.

 

That scenario is looking increasingly inevitable, even though it is known on Capitol Hill as the “nuclear option” because it would amount to a dramatic departure from Senate norms of bipartisanship and collegiality. Although McConnell has yet to formally announce plans to take the step, Republican senators fully expect it and are prepared if regretful.

 

Schumer conducted back-to-back interviews with several major news outlets Thursday to argue that it will be the fault of Republicans, not Democrats, if the rules change happens.

 

“Senate Republicans are acting like if Gorsuch doesn’t get 60 votes they have no choice but to change the rules,” Schumer said. “That is bunk.” He claimed that Trump should produce a more mainstream nominee, instead.

 

As for Manchin and Heitkamp, Schumer said: “I’ve made my arguments to every member, including them, and each member is going to make his or her own decision.”

In all, 34 Democrats and counting have said they will oppose Gorsuch.

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EU Commission Chief Warns Against Championing Brexit, Populist Movements in Europe

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has criticized those, including U.S. President Donald Trump, who praise Britain’s secession from the European Union (EU), and champion similar movements in other member nations. Leaders of the European People’s Party met on Malta Thursday, a day after Britain triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, officially starting the process known as Brexit. Zlatica Hoke has more.

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Cargo Vessels Evade Detection, Raising Fears of Huge Trafficking Operations

Hundreds of ships are switching off their tracking devices and taking unexplained routes, raising concern the trafficking of arms, migrants and drugs is going undetected.

Ninety percent of the world’s trade is carried by sea. Every vessel has an identification number administered by the United Nations’ International Maritime Organization or IMO. But crews are able to change the digital identity of their ship, making it possible to conceal previous journeys.

The Israeli firm Windward has developed software to track the changes. Its CEO, Ami Daniel, showed VOA several examples of suspicious shipping activity, including one vessel that changed its entire identity in the middle of a voyage from a Chinese port to North Korea.

“It’s intentionally changing all of identification numbers. Also its name, and its size, and its flag and its owner. Everything that’s recognizable in its digital footprint. This is obviously someone who is trying to circumvent sanctions [on North Korea],” says Daniel.

Transfers at sea

In a joint investigation with the Times of London newspaper, Windward showed that in January and February more than 1,000 cargo transfers took place at sea. Security experts fear traffickers are transporting drugs, weapons, and even people.

Suspicious activity can be highlighted by comparing a vessel’s journey with all its previous voyages. In mid-January a Cyprus-flagged ship designed to carry fish deviated from its usual route between West Africa and northern Europe to visit Ukraine, deactivating its tracking system on several occasions.

“It’s leaving Ukraine, transiting all through the Bosphorus Straits into Europe, then drifting off Malta,” explains Daniel, as the Windward system plots the route of the reefer [refrigerated] vessel on the screen. “On the way it turns off transmission a few times … then it comes into this place east of Gibraltar. This area is known for ship-to-ship transfers and smuggling, because of the proximity to North Africa.”

Under global regulations all vessels must report their last port of call when arriving in a new port.

“But as you can understand, when it does ship-to-ship transfers here, it doesn’t actually call into any port, right, because it’s the middle of the ocean. So it’s finding a way to bypass what it already has to report to the authorities,” Daniel said.

Finally the vessel sails to a remote Scottish island called Islay, but again it anchors around 400 meters off a tiny deserted bay. The specific purpose of this voyage hasn’t yet been identified.

Lack of political will

Daniel shows another example of a vessel leaving the Libyan port of Tobruk before drifting just off the Greek island of Crete, raising suspicions that it is involved in people smuggling.

But he says using information like this to investigate suspicious shipping activities requires political will as well as technological advances.

“Regulation, coordination, legislation. And then proof in the court of law. And not all of this necessarily exists. The high seas, which means 200 nautical miles onwards by definition, are not regulated right now. The U.N. is still working on it.”

Meanwhile the scale of smuggling around the United States’ coastline was underlined this month, as the Coast Guard intercepted 660 kilos of cocaine off the coast of Florida, with a street value of an estimated $420 million.

 

 

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