Sanctions Are Reimposed on Israeli Billionaire Granted Relief Under Trump
WASHINGTON — The Biden administration moved on Monday to reimpose financial sanctions on an Israeli mining executive who had turned to a team of lobbyists to have the measures eased during President Donald J. Trump’s final days in office.
The reversal came after a chorus of complaints from human rights advocates, members of Congress and activists in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the businessman, Dan Gertler, secured access to mining rights for decades through what the Treasury Department during the Trump administration called a series of corrupt deals that had shortchanged Congo of more than $1.3 billion in revenue from the sale of minerals.
In mid-January, shortly before Mr. Trump left office, Mr. Gertler secretly secured a one-year Treasury Department license that unfroze money he had deposited in financial institutions in the United States. The license also effectively ended a prohibition on Mr. Gertler doing business through the international banking system. The Trump administration had imposed those sanctions in 2017.
The Biden administration is now moving to reimpose those conditions, although Mr. Gertler is likely to have already moved at least some of the previously frozen money out of the United States.
The State Department said on Monday that Mr. Gertler had “engaged in extensive public corruption” and that the Treasury Department in consultation with the State Department was reversing its action.
“The license previously granted to Mr. Gertler is inconsistent with America’s strong foreign policy interests in combating corruption around the world, specifically including U.S. efforts to counter corruption and promote stability in the Democratic Republic of the Congo,” said a State Department statement issued on Monday. “The United States will continue to promote accountability for corrupt actors with all the tools at our disposal in order to advance democracy, uphold international norms and impose tangible costs on those who seek to upend them.”
Alan M. Dershowitz, a lawyer and lobbyist who helped represent Mr. Gertler in the push for the rollback of the sanctions, said he was disappointed with the Biden administration’s action.
“This decision was done unilaterally without an opportunity for Mr. Gertler to present evidence that he has been complying with all the requirements and conducting himself properly,” Mr. Dershowitz said. “We are now in the process of considering all of our options.”
Mr. Gertler has been doing business in Congo for more than two decades, securing a series of contracts to export diamonds, gold, oil, cobalt and other minerals. The Treasury Department said in 2018 that he had “amassed his fortune through hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of opaque and corrupt mining.”
Mr. Gertler had promised American officials that he would follow global anticorruption rules in exchange for the license that the Treasury Department granted him in January. But officials in Congo said freeing him from the sanctions would undermine efforts to fight corruption there and to help the new democratically elected president limit the continued influence of the country’s former leader, Joseph Kabila, an ally of Mr. Gertler’s.
“Restoring the sanctions enables Congolese and U.S. anticorruption efforts to get back on track.” said John Prendergast, a co-founder of The Sentry, a nonprofit human rights group that was among more than a dozen that had called on the Biden administration to revoke the license. “Dan Gertler’s corrupt partnership with former President Joseph Kabila cost the D.R.C. dearly in terms of lost resources, lost services and, ultimately, lost lives.”
In 2019, Mr. Gertler hired Mr. Dershowitz, who has served as a lawyer to Mr. Trump, as well as Louis Freeh, a former F.B.I. director, to work as a lobbyist to try to push Treasury to revoke the sanctions.
Mr. Gertler was issued the license after Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin directed the acting head of the agency’s Office of Foreign Assets Control to take the step, even though several Trump-era State Department officials in charge of United States relations with Africa told The New York Times that they had been unaware that such a move was about to be taken and that they opposed it.
After the issuance of the license became public, associates of Mr. Gertler said that part of the reason he had been granted special treatment was that he had played some undisclosed role in helping U.S. national security interests. Treasury officials and representatives for Mr. Gertler would not describe the specific nature of the assistance.
The same office at Treasury that had granted the license for Mr. Gertler in January revoked it on Monday, yet another sign of how unusual this series of events has been.
Activists in Congo who have been working for years to try to ensure that the wealth produced by mining minerals in the nation — which is one of the poorest in the world, even though it has some of the world’s most important mineral reserves — said they hoped the action would mean continued progress to combat corrupt deals that shortchanged people there.
“This will give the government here a reason to push a little bit harder on holding Dan Gertler and his associates accountable,” said Fred Bauma, a member of The Struggle for Change, a human rights group in Congo. “It is a good message from the new administration in the United States.”
Democrats in Congress who had called for Treasury to reverse the action also praised the move.
“If well-connected international billionaires like Gertler think there is a chance they can get away with their corrupt actions, then they will not be deterred from doing them,” Senator Benjamin L. Cardin, Democrat of Maryland and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in a statement.
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