Mar-a-Lago mem­bers named am­bas­sadors

USA TODAY US Edition - - FRONT PAGE - Brad Heath

WASH­ING­TON – When Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump needed an am­bas­sador to rep­re­sent the United States in Romania, he en­listed a real es­tate lawyer who was a mem­ber of one of his pri­vate golf clubs.

For South Africa and the Do­mini­can Re­pub­lic, he tapped long­time mem­bers of his pri­vate Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida. To rep­re­sent the U.S. gov­ern­ment in Hun­gary, he chose a man from an­other Florida club op­er­ated by the pres­i­dent’s pri­vate com­pa­nies.

Am­bas­sador­ships long have been among Wash­ing­ton’s choic­est po­lit­i­cal prizes, and pres­i­dents fre­quently award them to friends, po­lit­i­cal al­lies and cam­paign donors.

“There was al­ways a coun­try club men­tal­ity with some of this,” said Scott Amey, gen­eral coun­sel for the Project on Gov­ern­ment Over­sight, a non­par­ti­san group that in­ves­ti­gates gov­ern­ment ethics.

The dif­fer­ence is that the pres­i­dent also is the coun­try club’s pro­pri­etor, and he has handed out for­eign post­ings and other gov­ern­ment jobs to his pay­ing cus­tomers.

Mem­ber­ship rolls of Trump’s clubs are not pub­lic. USA TO­DAY iden­ti­fied mem­bers through in­ter­views, news ac­counts and a web­site golfers use to track their hand­i­caps.

Since he took of­fice, Trump has ap­pointed at least eight peo­ple who iden­ti­fied them­selves as cur­rent or for­mer mem­bers of his club to se­nior posts in his ad­min­is­tra­tion. USA TO­DAY iden­ti­fied five of those ap­pointees in mid-2017, prompt­ing crit­i­cism from ethics watch­dogs that the se­lec­tions blurred the bound­ary be­tween Trump’s pub­lic du­ties and his pri­vate fi­nan­cial in­ter­ests.

Since then, Trump has ap­pointed three other mem­bers as am­bas­sadors in Europe and Africa. One has been con­firmed by the Se­nate.

The White House de­clined to com­ment on how the ad­min­is­tra­tion se­lected them to rep­re­sent the U.S. gov­ern­ment in for­eign cap­i­tals.

Fed­eral ethics rules don’t pro­hibit the pres­i­dent from nom­i­nat­ing his cus­tomers or his mem­bers from ac­cept­ing. Nei­ther gov­ern­ment ethics lawyers nor the law­mak­ers who must ap­prove the nom­i­na­tions tra­di­tion­ally ques­tion whether would-be mem­bers of the ad­min­is­tra­tion have pri­vate busi­ness re­la­tion­ships with the pres­i­dent.

Be­com­ing a mem­ber of one of Trump’s clubs can re­quire ini­ti­a­tion fees of $100,000 or more, plus thou­sands more a year in dues – though the amounts vary widely. The money goes to Trump’s pri­vate com­pany. That firm is held in a trust dur­ing his pres­i­dency, but Trump is its sole ben­e­fi­ciary, en­ti­tled to with­draw money from it when­ever he chooses.

Trump’s U.S. golf clubs alone brought in about $600 mil­lion in 2015 and 2016, ac­cord­ing to his fi­nan­cial dis­clo­sure re­ports. It is un­known how much of that is profit be­cause, un­like re­cent pres­i­dents, Trump has not re­leased his tax re­turns.

The three mem­bers Trump nom­i­nated to am­bas­sador­ships last year joined the clubs long be­fore Trump sought the pres­i­dency. They de­clined to an­swer ques­tions about their mem­ber­ships.

Lana Marks, a lux­ury hand­bag de­signer Trump nom­i­nated last year as am­bas­sador to South Africa, grew up in that coun­try but moved away more than four decades ago. She has spent most of her ca­reer build­ing a busi­ness around bags that can cost $10,000 or more.

Marks de­clined to an­swer ques­tions about her nom­i­na­tion, her qual­i­fi­ca­tions or her mem­ber­ship in Mar-a-Lago, a short drive from her Palm Beach home. In­stead, she said she was “tremen­dously hon­ored that I can use my knowl­edge of the peo­ple and cul­ture of South Africa to serve the United States.”

Trump nom­i­nated Adrian Zuck­er­man, a New York real es­tate lawyer, to be the U.S. am­bas­sador to Romania last year. Zuck­er­man reg­is­tered his golf hand­i­cap through Trump’s club in Bed­min­ster, New Jer­sey, a ser­vice the club said is avail­able only to mem­bers. Scores he posted on a pub­lic web­site show he played at the club eight times in 2017 on days when Trump was vis­it­ing. (He posted scores of 83 to 100 on those days.)

Shortly af­ter he was nom­i­nated, The New York Law Jour­nal re­vealed that a le­gal sec­re­tary at Zuck­er­man’s firm had named him in a sex­ual ha­rass­ment law­suit in 2008, al­leg­ing that he used graphic lan­guage in the of­fice and spoke to her about his sex life. The law­suit was set­tled the fol­low­ing year.

Zuck­er­man did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment about his nom­i­na­tion or mem­ber­ship.

The Se­nate ended 2018 with­out con­firm­ing ei­ther Marks or Zuck­er­man. Trump renom­i­nated both of them in Jan­uary.

Trump nom­i­nated David Corn­stein as am­bas­sador to Hun­gary. Corn­stein and his wife, Sheila, both reg­is­tered their golf hand­i­caps through Trump’s club in West Palm Beach.

The Se­nate con­firmed Corn­stein to the post in 2018. Corn­stein had worked as the chair­man of a high-end jew­elry com­pany, and for years, he ran the semipri­vate cor­po­ra­tion in New York City that op­er­ates bet­ting on horse races. He later served on the board of a com­pany that buys jew­elry and ran a small wealth man­age­ment com­pany. He de­clined to com­ment about his golf club mem­ber­ship through a spokesman for the em­bassy in Bu­dapest.

Trump named Cal­lista Gin­grich, a long­time mem­ber of his Vir­ginia golf club and wife of for­mer House Speaker and Trump con­fi­dant Newt Gin­grich, as the U.S. am­bas­sador to the Vat­i­can. He chose Robin Bern­stein, a found­ing mem­ber of Mar-a-Lago, as am­bas­sador to the Do­mini­can Re­pub­lic. Both were con­firmed by the Se­nate.

LYNNE SLADKY/AP

The Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Fla., is owned by Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump.

GETTY IMAGES

Robin and Richard Bern­stein on the Mar-a-Lago es­tate Feb. 13, 2017. At the time, Robin Bern­stein was in line to fill the po­si­tion of am­bas­sador to the Do­mini­can Re­pub­lic.

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