The top Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee said Monday Congress should end a contentious “citizenship-for-sale” visa program in order to eliminate a potential conflict of interest for Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump's son-in-law and a White House adviser.
The comments from Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California came in response to media reports that Kushner Companies representatives — including Kushner's sister, Nicole Meyer — marketed use of the EB-5 investor visa program to Chinese nationals at a conference in Beijing over the weekend. Kushner resigned as CEO from his family's real estate company in January, ahead of joining the White House staff.
Feinstein said in a statement reports by The New York Times, The Washington Post and others make “crystal clear that the EB-5 regional center program presents a stark conflict of interest for the Trump White House.”
“Given that President [Donald] Trump and Jared Kushner refuse to divest from their vast financial holdings, the only way to eliminate this conflict is for Congress to allow the program to expire in September,” said Feinstein, who has sponsored legislation to end the program.
The EB-5 program allows rich foreign nationals to invest as little as $500,000 in a U.S. development project likely to create 10 or more new jobs in order to obtain a green card.
The program has been dogged by waste, fraud and abuse. Chinese investors received 7,719 of the 9,947 EB-5 visas issued by the State Department in fiscal 2016.
Kushner Companies has already benefited from the EB-5 visa program, taking in $50 million in investments to complete a 50-story, Trump-branded apartment complex in Jersey City, N.J.
The real estate firm said in a statement Monday that Meyer was attempting to “make clear that her brother had stepped away from the company in January and has nothing to do with this project” when she mentioned him to investors in Beijing.
“Kushner Companies apologizes if that mention of her brother was in any way interpreted as an attempt to lure investors,” the firm said. “That was not Ms. Meyer's intention.”
Asked about Meyer’s sales pitch, White House spokesman Sean Spicer said Kushner has taken steps to comply with ethics rules and referred questions to his family’s firm. The real estate company has said Jared Kushner, who is married to Ivanka Trump, has no role in the firm's management or operations.
The EB-5 program has been extended with little change for years, often through omnibus spending bills or continuing resolutions. The latest reauthorization was granted through the fiscal 2017 omnibus spending bill that Trump signed on Friday.
The White House is currently weighing sweeping changes to the EB-5 program proposed by former President Barack Obama. If Trump opts to implement them, the $500,000 investment level would be raised and the federal government would receive greater power over where projects may be built.
Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, a proponent of EB-5 changes and co-sponsor of Feinstein's bill, says he expects the White House to stand by the proposed Obama regulations and does not believe Kushner’s family ties would endanger their implementation.
“Senator Schumer strongly supports bipartisan legislation that would crack down on fraud, abuse, and improper influence within the EB-5 program,” said Matt House, a spokesman for Senate Democratic Leader Charles E. Schumer. The New York Democrat is not a co-sponsor of the Feinstein bill.
Ethics watchdogs also took note of Meyer’s comments.
“This crass effort by the Kushner family to raise large amounts of funding in China and to use government ‘investment visas’ as incentives for wealthy Chinese individuals to invest in the Kushner family business is clearly intended to create the appearance that Jared Kushner and his family can be influential in their obtaining investor visas to the United States,” wrote Fred Wertheimer, president of the ethics watchdog Democracy 21, in a letter Monday to the Office of Government Ethics.
The White House has indicated some willingness to follow through on the Obama-era proposals, which some in the real estate industry say are too drastic and could bring investments in the program to a trickle.
Michael Short, a White House spokesman, said in an email in mid-April that the EB-5 program needs “substantial repair.”
“There are serious concerns held by the administration regarding the EB-5 visa program, in part because it is not being used as it was primarily intended, and in part because it poses something of a security risk to the United States,” Short said.
Stephanie Akin, Niels Lesniewski and Jennifer Shutt contributed to this report.