WASHINGTON — Ozan Ozkural, a London-based investment manager, found a creative way to gain one-on-one access to the new first family: He bid nearly CAD$80,000 to have a cup of coffee with Ivanka Trump for a charity event she was hosting.
Ozkural wanted to meet with Trump — who is considering playing an informal role in her father’s administration — to gain insight into topics like President-elect Donald Trump’s possible future dealings with Turkey and other nations where Ozkural invests, he said.
“The nature of my business, we talk to a lot of different governments, a lot of politicians and lawmakers across the world,” Ozkural said in an interview Thursday, adding that he recently had a conversation with the president of Argentina. “You end up getting a better sense of what the modus operandi will be.”
AP Photo/ Evan VucciIvanka Trump, daughter of President-elect Donald Trump, arrives at Trump Tower, Friday, Nov. 11, 2016, in New York.
Ozkural is one of several high-profile bidders in a feverish competition to win time with one of Donald Trump’s children. Other bidders include the owner of a Tex-Mex restaurant chain from Houston who wants to press the president-elect, through his daughter, about immigration policy, and a real estate executive and fringe presidential candidate from Florida who wants to send a message to him about election fraud.
Now they may not get a chance to “Enjoy Coffee with Ivanka Trump in NYC or DC,” by winning the auction on LOT #:1182106, hosted by a New York company called Charitybuzz. The money was to go to a foundation led by Ivanka Trump’s brother Eric to benefit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital of Tennessee.
But Eric Trump told The New York Times on Thursday that he was considering shutting down the bidding — 10 days after it started — about an hour after The Times raised questions about the auction.
You never, ever want to have government officials using their public office for the private gain, even for a worthy charity
The charitable fundraising by Donald Trump’s children is problematic, ethics lawyers said, because of the unusual role they are playing in the transition process, with Ivanka Trump and her husband, Jared Kushner, attending meetings the president-elect had with executives from major technology companies and with the prime minister of Japan, and Donald Trump’s oldest son, Donald Jr., helping to select the nominee for interior secretary.
The Obama administration prohibited any member of the first family from directly soliciting charitable donations, said Norm Eisen, who served as an ethics lawyer early in President Barack Obama’s tenure. Obama and his wife, Michelle, have attended occasional charitable fundraising events, including the Congressional Black Caucus annual dinners. The Obamas also allowed their daughters’ high school to auction off magazines they had signed, Eisen said, but they did not auction off access to themselves.
“You never, ever want to have government officials using their public office for the private gain, even for a worthy charity,” Eisen said. “That was how we did it.”
AP Photo/Evan VucciEric Trump, son of President-elect Donald Trump, waits for an elevator in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York, Thursday, Dec. 15, 2016.
The circumstance with the Trumps is not an exact parallel; all of the incoming first family will not live in the White House.
In a brief telephone interview about the auction, Eric Trump — who is expected to remain at the Trump Organization — said that he was trying to navigate the “new world” he is in since his father’s win.
“We’ve done this every year,” he said, referring to his foundation, which typically raises about $6.6 million annually, has a single paid staff member and gives almost all its revenues to St. Jude’s. “We utilized Charitybuzz to raise significant funds. Every single year we’ve auctioned off a lunch with one of ourselves. It’s nothing more than an effort to raise a lot of money in an effort to help sick children.”
In a statement, Ivanka Trump said it was an “honor” to raise “additional money to benefit terminally ill children through the donation of my personal time.”
Charity auctions by celebrities and others are not uncommon, and Charitybuzz is a website that celebrities use to help raise money through auctions. (On the same site that listed Ivanka Trump’s auction, a former New York Times editor raised money for a children’s charity by auctioning off a tour of The Times.)
The possible cancellation of the auction would be the second concession by Ivanka Trump that she might have overstepped ethical bounds. A jewelry company she owns apologized last month after a senior executive there sent out a notice to reporters promoting a $14,400 gold bracelet Ivanka Trump had worn during a television interview with her father.
Officials in Washington have long accepted donations to charities from special interests pursuing favors. The charity of Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, accepts hundreds of thousands of dollars from the pharmaceutical industry, and the Congressional Black Caucus takes in millions of dollars annually from corporate donors that are pushing legislation in Congress.
Even with the coffee auction in doubt, the Trump family is pushing other charitable events. Eric Trump has scheduled a charitable fundraiser in late February at the family’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, where $33,300 “Gold Level” sponsors will be given special access.
Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a nonprofit organization that promotes limiting the influence of special interests, said the role of Ivanka Trump and her brother in the fundraising effort seemed “highly inappropriate” because they were offering access in exchange for money.
The president’s family should not be out raising money for whatever cause, in exchange for a potential influence buyer who wants to get his views to the president
Federal employees have strict restrictions on charitable solicitations, but the provision does not apply to the president.
“This is just wrong,” Wertheimer said of the auction to have coffee with Ivanka Trump. “The president’s family should not be out raising money for whatever cause, in exchange for a potential influence buyer who wants to get his views to the president.”
Time with Ivanka Trump clearly comes at a premium. Tony Podesta, a lobbyist and the brother of Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, John Podesta, also happens to be on the same Charitybuzz website offering lunch in exchange for a charitable donation.
The Podesta auction closed Thursday with Tony Podesta, whose firm calls itself “A King of K Street,” having drawn just four bids, reaching $2.300 a couple of hours before it closed. The final bidding price is not public.
Spencer Platt/Getty ImagesJared Kushner, the son-in-law of President-elect Donald Trump, walks through the lobby of Trump Tower with his wife Ivanka on November 18, 2016 in New York City. President-elect Trump and his transition team are in the process of filling cabinet and other high level positions for the new administration.
“Not a surprise that more people want to meet her than me,” Tony Podesta said in an interview Thursday. “She is sort of priceless right now. She is a great businesswoman. She is a really interesting person, and she is right in the middle of what is the biggest political change the United States has gone through since Roosevelt.”
Ivanka Trump, who is disengaging from the Trump Organization where she is executive vice president, has signaled a desire to be involved in policy, working on pay equity for women and talking to her father about climate change.
She has interviewed candidates to work for her as chief of staff as she prepares for a possible role in the administration. She also plans to lobby members of Congress, in conjunction with the Republican Main Street Partnership, to expand child care, said Sarah Chamberlain, the partnership’s president. “We are thrilled to have her,” Chamberlain said Thursday.
Ivanka Trump and Kushner have examined how he could join the administration without violating anti-nepotism laws. He is looking at having a staff and an office in the White House, although no final decisions have been made.
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A number of the transition team’s executive committee meetings have been on the 25th floor of Trump Tower, where all three of Donald Trump’s adult children have offices, according to two people present for the briefings.
The president-elect said in a Twitter message this week that Donald and Eric would run the business going forward.
As of Thursday evening, the highest bid for the coffee auction — $90,500 — had come from Russell Ybarra, the Tex-Mex restaurant-chain owner, who said in an interview Thursday that he wanted to urge Ivanka Trump to persuade her father not to go too far in restricting immigration laws. Many of the employees at his 14 restaurants are immigrants, and he said he already had a hard time finding workers.
“I believe Ivanka is more open-minded a person you can reason with,” Ybarra said, just before he went back on the website and increased his bid.
“I’m sure it will go MUCH higher,” he wrote in an email, unaware that the Trump family was considering canceling the auction. “Either way, it keeps it exciting.”
The contest to have coffee with Ivanka Trump comes with strict rules. A background check by the Secret Service is required, according to Charitybuzz, and the Trump Organization retained the right to shut down the meeting, which was to be held sometime after January at the Trump Tower in New York or the Trump International Hotel, near the White House.
“All winning bidders and their guests to conduct themselves appropriately,” the contest rules say. “Polite manners and respect for the generous donor and adherence to any rules or parameters are a must.”