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Democrats weigh risks of pushing tax probe into Trump’s businesses

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WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Congressional Democrats are debating whether to expand the scope of their inquiry into President Donald Trump’s taxes to include his business tax returns along with his personal returns, a risky step seen by some as crucial to effective oversight.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump speaks during a ceremony to sign an executive order on veterans suicide prevention in the Roosevelt Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., March 5, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

The debate has intensified, aides and lawmakers said, since last week’s testimony by former Trump personal attorney Michael Cohen, who alleged to lawmakers that Trump altered his business asset values and slashed employee salaries to lower his taxes.

The testimony suggested that investigators in the House of Representatives will need both his personal and business returns to fully assess Trump’s compliance with tax laws and understand the network of businesses he owns, lawmakers said.

The White House declined to comment on Thursday.

House Democrats have spent months laying the groundwork for an unprecedented request to Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin for Trump’s personal tax filings.

Adding Trump’s business returns could complicate an already legally delicate effort, aides and lawmakers said. Trump owns more than 550 companies and business entities, including the Trump Organization, his financial disclosure reports show.

“There’s conflicting advice on this,” said Representative Richard Neal, chairman of the House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee and the only House lawmaker authorized by law to ask Mnuchin for Trump’s returns.

“Tax policy is pretty complicated. There are times when individual returns can instruct you. Other times, you might seek a business return,” Neal told Reuters in an interview. “It has to conform to the principle of a pretty narrow law.”

Neal is trying to formulate his request to Mnuchin so that it can withstand a likely court fight with Trump, who has refused to release his returns, defying decades of presidential practice. Unlike predecessors, Trump has also retained extensive business interests while serving as president, raising questions about conflicts of interest.

Interest in Trump’s business returns is coming from at least four other House panels, including Oversight and Judiciary, according to aides and lawmakers. House Oversight wants to depose long-time Trump tax attorney Sheri Dillon, who likely has a deep understanding of Trump’s tax returns.

Committee officials said this week that no final decision has been made on whether to pursue the business returns in the initial request.

‘A LOT OF DOORS’

Cohen’s testimony “opened a lot of doors for investigatory bodies,” Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a member of the House Oversight Committee, told Reuters.

“It’s about comparing his financial statements with his tax reports. What Cohen named particularly were the Trump Organization taxes,” she said.

Democrats, who won control of the House in the November 2018 U.S. elections, say Trump’s personal returns would reveal whether he has complied with U.S. tax laws and any IRS audits, as well as his effective tax rate, business and investment income and charitable contributions.

But Democrats could blunder by focusing solely on Trump’s personal returns, if their aim is to identify conflicts of interest between his sprawling business investments and the policies he advocates from the Oval Office, tax experts say.

“Personal returns alone fall short,” said Steve Rosenthal, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center, a think tank in Washington.

Success against legal resistance to disclosure by Trump would greatly depend on the ability of Democrats to demonstrate a legitimate legislative purpose for their request.

Rosenthal said including business returns would strengthen the House argument because the documents are geared strongly to legitimate oversight questions such as conflicts of interest.

But House Democrats are talking about simplify their request by targeting a limited number of Trump companies tied to investments of interest, rather than the entire business network, and possibly making further requests later.

“It’s going to be a combination of both personal and business, because he goes back and forth between both. To get the full picture, I don’t think you can just pick one or the other,” said Representative Gerry Connolly, an Oversight member.

Reporting by David Morgan in Washington; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and James Dalgleish

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Second U.S. jury finds Bayer’s Roundup caused cancer

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(Reuters) – A U.S. jury on Tuesday found Bayer AG’s glyphosate-based Roundup weed killer caused cancer, a blow to the company eight months after another jury issued a $289 million verdict over similar claims in a different case.

FILE PHOTO: Monsanto’s Roundup weedkiller atomizers are displayed for sale at a garden shop near Brussels, Belgium November 27, 2017. REUTERS/Yves Herman/File Photo

Tuesday’s unanimous jury decision in San Francisco federal court, which came after five days of deliberation, was not a finding of Bayer’s liability for the cancer of plaintiff Edwin Hardeman. Liability and damages will be decided by the same jury in a second trial phase beginning on Wednesday.

Bayer, which denies allegations that glyphosate or Roundup cause cancer, in a statement on Tuesday said it was disappointed with the jury’s initial decision. Bayer acquired Monsanto, the longtime maker of Roundup, for $63 billion last year.

“We are confident the evidence in phase two will show that Monsanto’s conduct has been appropriate and the company should not be liable for Mr. Hardeman’s cancer,” the company said.

Glyphosate is the world’s most widely used weed killer. Monsanto’s Roundup was the first glyphosate-based weed killer but is no longer patent-protected and many other versions are now available. Bayer does not provide sales figures for the product.

The case was only the second of some 11,200 Roundup lawsuits to go to trial in the United States. Another California man was awarded $289 million in August after a state court jury found Roundup caused his cancer, sending Bayer shares plunging at the time. That award was later reduced to $78 million and is on appeal.

Bayer had claimed that jury was overly influenced by plaintiffs’ lawyers allegations of corporate misconduct and did not focus on the science.

U.S. District Judge Vince Chhabria called such evidence “a distraction” from the scientific question of whether glyphosate causes cancer. He split the Hardeman case into two phases: one to decide causation, the other to determine Bayer’s potential liability and damages.

Under Chhabria’s order, the second phase would only take place if the jury found Roundup to be a substantial factor in causing Hardeman’s non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The jury found that it was on Tuesday.

NOT AN ABERRATION

Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said Tuesday’s decision showed that the August jury verdict was not an aberration and that the Hardeman case could be an indication of what may happen in future similar cases.

Some legal experts had said Chhabria’s decision was beneficial to Bayer, which says decades of studies and regulatory evaluations have shown the weed killer to be safe for human use.

“We will only really know whether it works for Bayer to isolate scientific issues once we see more trials,” said Adam Zimmerman, a law professor focusing on mass torts at Los Angeles-based Loyola Law School.

Chhabria has scheduled another bellwether trial for May and a third trial is likely to take place this year. All three bellwether cases will be split into causation and liability phases.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the European Chemicals Agency and other regulators have found that glyphosate is not likely carcinogenic to humans. But the World Health Organization’s cancer arm in 2015 reached a different conclusion, classifying glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.”

In the trial’s second phase, Hardeman’s lawyers will be allowed to present evidence allegedly showing the company’s efforts to improperly influence scientists, regulators and the public about the safety of Roundup.

Hardeman’s lawyers, Aimee Wagstaff and Jennifer Moore, said they look forward to presenting that evidence to the jury to hold Monsanto accountable.

FILE PHOTO: Logo of Bayer AG is pictured at the annual results news conference of the German drugmaker in Leverkusen, Germany February 27, 2019. REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay

“Now we can focus on the evidence that Monsanto has not taken a responsible, objective approach to the safety of Roundup,” they said in a statement.

Chhabria is overseeing more than 760 Roundup cases for which Hardeman’s was a so-called bellwether trial intended to help determine the range of damages and define settlement options for the others.

Another Roundup trial is scheduled to begin in California state court in Oakland on March 28, involving a couple who claim Roundup caused their non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Reporting by Jim Christie in San Francisco; Additional reporting and writing by Tina Bellon in New York; Editing by Bill Berkrot

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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U.S.-backed SDF says captures Islamic State camp but fight not over

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A fighter of Syrian Democratic Forces gestures in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria, March 18, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

DEIR AL-ZOR PROVINCE, Syria (Reuters) – U.S.-backed fighters said they took a big step towards eradicating Islamic State’s last territorial possession in eastern Syria on Monday, seizing the jihadist camp at Baghouz and cornering remaining fighters against the Euphrates river.

“This is not a victory announcement, but a significant progress in the fight against Daesh,” said Mustafa Bali, an SDF media official on Twitter.

“The camp is under full SDF control. Not the end of operation yet,” another official with the militia said.

Some Islamic State militants were still confined to a tiny area on the bank of the Euphrates River and had yet to surrender, the official said in a note circulated to journalists.

“Clashes are going on in Baghouz right now. They hold some families as human shields,” the official added.

The camp was the biggest remaining area held by Islamic State in Baghouz, itself the last populated area the jihadist group held from the third of Syria and Iraq it suddenly seized in 2014.

Over the past two months, more than 60,000 people have poured out of the group’s dwindling enclave, nearly half of whom were surrendering supporters of Islamic State, including some 5,000 fighters.

However, while the capture of Baghouz will mark a milestone in the battle against Islamic State, regional and Western officials say the group will remain a threat.

(GRAPHIC – How Islamic State lost Syria: tmsnrt.rs/2O7l4mN)

Reporting by Angus McDowall, Tom Perry and a Reuters reporter in Deir al-Zor province; Editing by Alison Williams

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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U.S.-backed SDF says it captured 157 militants, mostly foreigners

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DEIR AL-ZOR PROVINCE, Syria (Reuters) – U.S.-backed fighters besieging the last shred of Islamic State territory in eastern Syria said on Tuesday they had captured 157 mostly foreign fighters as they tracked efforts by jihadists to escape the enclave.

A fighter of Syrian Democratic Forces gestures in the village of Baghouz, Deir Al Zor province, Syria, March 18, 2019. REUTERS/Stringer

“Our units monitored a group of terrorists, trailed them and captured 157 fully militarily equipped terrorists,” a statement by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) militia said.

Islamic State’s Baghouz pocket is tiny, wedged between the Euphrates river and a row of hills at the Iraqi border. It is crammed with vehicles and makeshift shelters and pummeled at night by artillery and air strikes.

(GRAPHIC – How Islamic State lost Syria: tmsnrt.rs/2O7l4mN)

It is the last populated area remaining to Islamic State from the third of Syria and Iraq it suddenly seized in 2014 before its cruelties and attacks brought together local and foreign countries to push it back.

The captured jihadists were “mostly foreign nationals” said Mustafa Bali, head of the SDF’s media office, on Twitter. Neither he nor the SDF statement said when the capture took place.

Both the SDF and the U.S.-led coalition that backs it have said the remaining Islamic State militants inside the Baghouz pocket are among its most hardened foreign operatives.

Over the past two months, more than 60,000 people have poured out of the group’s dwindling enclave, nearly half of whom were surrendering supporters of Islamic State, including some 5,000 fighters.

However, while the capture of Baghouz will mark a milestone in the battle against Islamic State, regional and Western officials say the group will remain a threat.

Some of its fighters hold out in the central Syrian desert and others have gone underground in Iraq to stage a series of shootings and kidnappings.

Nobody knows how many remain inside the last scrap of ground. Reuters footage of the encampment on Monday showed large explosions there and smoke billowing overhead with the sound of gunshots.

On Monday night Islamic State released an audio recording of its spokesman, Abi al-Hassan al-Muhajer, saying the group would stay strong.

“Do you think the displacement of the weak and poor out of Baghouz will weaken the Islamic State? No,” he said.

Reporting by Angus McDowall and a Reuters reporter in Deir al-Zor province; Editing by Alison Williams

Our Standards:The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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