Democrats in Congress are narrowing in on Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin following his department's controversial decision to ease sanctions on companies tied to a Russian oligarch with ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin, with some raising questions about his own personal business dealings and the possibility of the existence of conflicts of interest.
The Democrats' desire to probe possible conflicts behind Mnuchin's decision on the sanctions comes just two days after the Treasury Department announced on Sunday that it planned to lift sanctions against giant energy and aluminum companies linked to Oleg Deripaska, a sanctioned Russian oligarch. Treasury officials first announced the relief in December, although the decision to remove sanctions from the Russian companies tied to Deripaska has come under intense scrutiny ever since it was proposed. Earlier this month, the House voted overwhelmingly to keep the sanctions in place, while a similar measure in the Senate fell three votes short of meeting the 60-vote threshold.
Sanctions on various Russian interests, including against Deripaska personally and companies tied to him, were announced in April in retaliation to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election, cyberattacks on U.S. companies and Moscow's support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's regime and its activities in Crimea and eastern Ukraine.
On Tuesday, as Mnuchin moved ahead with the plan to ease sanctions, Democrats in the House wrote to him to ask for "documents and records relating to entities and individuals who are affected by or stand to benefit" from the decision to remove the companies EN+, Rusal and EuroSibEnergo from the sanctions list. Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, sent a similar request for information.
The Democrats' request follows a letter from Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, who wrote to Mnuchin last week expressing concern about a possible conflict of interest behind the Treasury actions. Speier cited Mnuchin's reported sale of his stake in a film production company in June 2017 to Len Blavatnik, a Ukraine-born billionaire and entertainment investor and an associate of Deripaska's, which the secretary made to comply with the terms of the ethics agreement he entered upon being confirmed as Treasury Secretary. However, Bloomberg reported at the time that Mnuchin did not sell his stake to Blavatnik’s company, Access Entertainment, citing a person familiar with the matter. And Blavatnik's spokesman told the New York Times, "there was never at any point any contact between Mr. Blavatnik and Mr. Mnuchin in connection with the sale or operations of RatPac-Dune," referring to the film production company.
In her letter to Mnuchin seeking information about the transaction, Spier wrote, "Given your business relationships with these individuals and your involvement in twice delaying sanctions, weakening the penalties and eventually proposing relief from sanctions, there is clearly a conflict of interest."
In a tweet, Tony Sayegh, a spokesman for Mnuchin, said Speier's concerns "are premised on false information."
"As our response to her letter will make clear, [Secretary Mnuchin] had no business relationship with Mr. Blavatnik and any suggestion of a conflict is baseless," he wrote.
Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), the chairman of the powerful House Oversight Committee, and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, wrote to Mnuchin on Wednesday asking him to detail his "personal and business" relationship with Blavatnik and whether he took "any steps to minimize any conflicts of interest, or the appearance of such conflicts." The lawmakers also asked Mnuchin to identify any detail any benefit that Blavatnik may have received from the sale of his stake in a film production company.