Democrats are zeroing in on Treasury’s Mnuchin

Democrats have a new investigative target: Treasury Secretary Steven MnuchinSteven Terner MnuchinGOP nervous that border wall fight could prompt year-end shutdown GOP nervous that border wall fight could prompt year-end shutdown Schiff blasts DOJ over memo on withholding Trump tax returns MORE.

The leaders of three powerful House committees are requesting a trove of documents related to the Treasury Department’s decision to lift sanctions on companies tied to Oleg Deripaska, a prominent Russian oligarch linked with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Treasury lifted the sanctions on Deripaska’s United Co. Rusal and two other firms after he agreed to reduce his ownership stake below 50 percent and relinquish control of the firms, according to details of the deal released by the Treasury Department.

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But Democrats have raised concerns about the agreement, suggesting it could still afford Deripaska influence and even “defacto control” over the companies.

Others have raised ethical concerns about Mnuchin’s reported business ties to billionaire Republican donor Len Blavatnik, who is an investor in Rusal and reportedly stands to benefit from the deal.

The Treasury Department has publicly pushed back on those assertions, saying Mnuchin had no “direct business relationship” with Blavatnik and calling suggestions of a conflict of interest “baseless.”

The inquiries underline the fervency among Democrats to use their newfound oversight powers in order to investigate the Trump administration — including any links between people in Trump’s orbit and the Kremlin.

“There is already a lot of skepticism about Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Trump cites tax cuts over judges as having biggest impact of his presidency Ocasio-Cortez claps back at Trump after he cites her in tweet rejecting impeachment MORE and his intuition about what our foreign interests should be,” said Rep. Raja KrishnamoorthiSubramanian (Raja) Raja KrishnamoorthiOvernight Health Care: Pelosi to change drug-pricing plan after complaints | 2020 Democrats to attend Planned Parenthood abortion forum | House holds first major 'Medicare for All' hearing Overnight Health Care: Pelosi to change drug-pricing plan after complaints | 2020 Democrats to attend Planned Parenthood abortion forum | House holds first major 'Medicare for All' hearing House panel launches investigation into Juul MORE (D-Ill.), who was recently tapped to serve on the House Intelligence Committee.

Deripaska has also attracted attention as a result of his ties to Paul ManafortPaul John ManafortNew York activists go on hunger strike to advocate for ending solitary confinement New York activists go on hunger strike to advocate for ending solitary confinement House panel subpoenas Flynn, Gates MORE, Trump’s former campaign chairman who has pleaded guilty in connection with Mueller’s probe to offenses arising from his lobbying work on behalf of pro-Russian forces in Ukraine.

Trump officials insist the administration has been tough on Russia, pointing to decisions to send lethal aid to Ukraine, sanction Russians and expel suspected Russian spies. The Treasury Department unveiled penalties on Deripaska and his firms last April under a law aimed at punishing Moscow for interfering in the election and other malign activities.

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Mnuchin has argued the sanctions aimed to hit Putin’s ally, and not all the employees who happen to work for his companies. 

“One of the goals of sanctions is to change behavior, and the proposed delistings of companies that Deripaska will no longer control show that sanctions can result in positive change,” Mnuchin said in January.

The Treasury Department announced in December the administration’s plan to lift sanctions on the three companies — Rusal, its parent company En+ Group PLC and JSC EuroSibEnergo.

The European Union has also backed Mnuchin’s decision to delist Rusal and En+, arguing the move would prevent “serious damage” to the European aluminum industry.

The firms as part of the deal agreed to commit “to full transparency with Treasury by undertaking extensive, ongoing auditing, certification, and reporting requirements.”

Penalties on Deripaska and his property were left in place by Treasury.

The plan has nevertheless encountered pushback on Capitol Hill.

In January, lawmakers unsuccessfully attempted to defeat the administration’s decision to lift the sanctions. The Republican-controlled Senate narrowly rejected a Democratic-led effort to prevent the administration from lifting sanctions on the firms in a vote of 57-42.

Democrats in the lower chamber have already hauled in Mnuchin to testify on the sanctions behind closed doors and left voicing dissatisfaction. Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiOcasio-Cortez claps back at Trump after he cites her in tweet rejecting impeachment Ocasio-Cortez claps back at Trump after he cites her in tweet rejecting impeachment GOP nervous that border wall fight could prompt year-end shutdown MORE (D-Calif.) described it as “one of the worst classified briefings we have received from the Trump administration.”

On Tuesday, the chairs of the House Intelligence, Financial Services and Foreign Affairs Committees demanded Mnuchin turn over all documents relevant to the decisionmaking process to lift the sanctions off the three companies — “regardless of classification” — by next Tuesday.

Other Democrats have also pressed for more information, citing ethics concerns.

House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsHouse Democrats question DHS over using facial recognition tech on US citizens House Democrats question DHS over using facial recognition tech on US citizens Democrats lash out at Trump's bombshell remarks MORE (D-Md.) and Sen. Ron WydenRonald (Ron) Lee WydenOn The Money: Pelosi says no debt ceiling hike until deal on spending caps | McConnell pressures White House to strike budget deal | Warren bill would wipe out billions in student debt | Senate passes IRS reform bill On The Money: Pelosi says no debt ceiling hike until deal on spending caps | McConnell pressures White House to strike budget deal | Warren bill would wipe out billions in student debt | Senate passes IRS reform bill Senate passes bipartisan IRS modernization bill MORE (D-Ore.), the top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, sent a letter to Mnuchin on Tuesday inquiring about reports of his Hollywood business ties to Blavatnik, a Soviet-born British-American businessman and co-owner of SUAL Partners Limited, a shareholder in Rusal that is also partly owned by Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg.

The New York Times reported in January, before the sanctions were lifted, on a confidential document showing that SUAL would own 22.5 percent of Rusal after the deal is completed. The report also suggested the deal would be less of a blow to Deripaska than the administration has signaled publicly.

The lawmakers cited press reports of Mnuchin’s business and personal ties to Blavatnik, including one stating Blavatnik was an initial investor in RatPac Entertainment, the film financing firm that later partnered with Mnuchin’s firm, Dune Entertainment. Mnuchin divested his stake in RatPac-Dune in 2017 after becoming Treasury secretary.

“We are seeking an explanation as to how you managed your own potential conflicts of interest arising from your personal and professional relationships with major Rusal shareholder Len Blavatnik, a key beneficiary from your decision to delist Rusal,” Cummings and Wyden wrote.

The letter followed an inquiry from Rep. Jackie SpeierKaren (Jackie) Lorraine Jacqueline SpeierOvernight Defense: Trump hails D-Day veterans in Normandy | Trump, Macron downplay rift on Iran | Trump mourns West Point cadet's death in accident | Pentagon closes review of deadly Niger ambush Trump hails D-Day veterans in Normandy: 'You are the pride of our nation' Trump hails D-Day veterans in Normandy: 'You are the pride of our nation' MORE (D-Calif.) about transactions involving his interest in RatPac-Dune and any ethics advice he received regarding those transactions or discussions about the Deripaska-linked sanctions.

Speier specifically cited a 2017 report in the Hollywood Reporter that Mnuchin sold his shares in RatPac-Dune to Blavatnik for $25 million.

Speier wrote on Jan. 23 that Mnuchin’s failure to recuse himself from the sanctions discussions is “deeply troubling” and represents a “conflict of interest.”

A Treasury spokesman initially said Speier's letter was "premised on false information." The department formally responded to Speier on Thursday, according to her office, and stated that Mnuchin did not sell his shares to Blavatnik or his companies but instead to a "third party" with no links to him.

Speier sent a follow-up letter seen by The Hill suggesting Mnuchin name who purchased his stake in the "interest of transparency." The congresswoman also accused Mnuchin of failing to address a series of questions laid out in her initial letter and asked for a proper response within two weeks.

A Treasury spokesman did not immediately return a request for comment on Speier's latest letter, but told The Hill previously that the department received and is reviewing the other letters.