March 1, 2018 / 2:15 PM / 8 months ago

Lawmakers question Trump ties to Panama project linked to laundering, trafficking

SAO PAULO (Reuters) - Two members of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee have asked the Trump Organization if it was aware of allegations that real estate agents and investors involved in the Trump Ocean Club in Panama had ties to money laundering and drug trafficking.

REFILE - ADDING RESTRICTIONS The Trump Ocean Club International Hotel and Tower Panama (C) is seen between apartment buildings in Panama City, Panama February 23, 2018. Picture taken February 23, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Lemos

Democratic Representatives Norma Torres and Eliot Engel sent the letter, seen by Reuters, to the Trump Organization’s general counsel, Alan Garten, on Wednesday evening.

They asked what due diligence was done on investors and agents involved in the project, which earned President Donald Trump between $30 million and $50 million for lending his name to it, according to court records.

Garten wrote in an email on Thursday that he had not received the letter from Torres and Engel.

Torres and Engel largely based the questions in their letter on the findings of a Reuters investigation into the Trump Ocean Club published in November, in conjunction with U.S. broadcaster NBC News.

“Given widely reported allegations of money laundering and drug trafficking in connection with Trump Ocean Club Panama, we believe it is imperative to understand the Trump Organization’s knowledge of and role in sales at this property,” the representatives wrote.

They asked if the Trump Organization at any time became aware that “any agents or investors involved in Trump Ocean Club were involved in money laundering or illegal narcotics trafficking,” and, if so, had they reported it to U.S. or Panamanian authorities and terminated business arrangements with any suspected individuals.

The Trump Ocean Club International Hotel and Tower Panama is seen between apartment buildings in Panama City, Panama February 27, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Lemos

The Reuters investigation found that a Brazilian man, Alexandre Ventura Nogueira, was responsible for between one-third and one-half of advance sales for the Trump Panama project, which was completed in 2011.

Nogueira is under investigation in Brazil for international money laundering. The inquiry started in 2013 after the Finance Ministry’s financial crimes unit noticed several transfers of more than 1 million reais ($308,500) from accounts in Panama to his accounts in Brazil.

In a November interview with Reuters, Nogueira denied any wrongdoing in Brazil.

He said that he only learned after the Trump Ocean Club project was almost complete that some of his partners and investors in the project were criminals, including some with what he described as connections to the “Russian mafia.”

Nogueira, whose whereabouts are unknown, said he had not knowingly laundered any illicit money through the Trump project, although he said he had laundered cash later in other schemes for corrupt Panamanian officials.

Garten said in November: “No one at the Trump Organization, including the Trump family, has any recollection of ever meeting or speaking with this individual.”

Torres and Engel wrote in their letter that obtaining answers from the Trump Organization on the Panama project was “essential as we carry out oversight of U.S. policy towards Latin America and the Caribbean.”

They said they wanted to ensure that Trump was “fully committed to the goal of dismantling the transnational criminal organizations that are responsible for smuggling drugs into the United States.”

“If the President, in a previous role, failed to take reasonable steps to prevent the laundering of drug money, it would be of grave concern to us,” the letter read.

Reporting by Brad Brooks; Editing by Daniel Flynn, Peter Cooney and Jonathan Oatis

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