DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Vice President Mike Pence's chief of staff, Marc Short, is a longtime political operative. He's played an active role on the White House coronavirus task force, which his boss chairs. Short also holds up to $1.64 million worth of individual stocks in companies doing work related to the government's pandemic response. NPR Washington investigative correspondent Tim Mak has some exclusive reporting on how this could run afoul of conflict-of-interest laws.
TIM MAK, BYLINE: Many of the medical, pharmaceutical and manufacturing companies in which Short holds stock have been directly affected by or involved in the work of the coronavirus task force. These include companies like 3M, which make PPE, and Abbott Labs, which produces a COVID-19 test touted by Trump, and Procter & Gamble, whose CEO has appeared at a White House coronavirus task force briefing. Other companies in his stock portfolio have been publicly lauded by the White House for working with the government, such as Roche and Thermo Fisher Scientific. Here's President Trump at a March 13 Rose Garden press conference.
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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I want to thank Roche - great company - for their incredible work. I'd also like to thank Thermo Fisher.
MAK: There is a law that requires executive branch employees to resolve conflicts of interest before participating in discussions or decisions affecting companies or industries in which they are invested. It is unclear what discussions or decisions Short may have participated in. But Short has taken a public role related to the White House's coronavirus response. On March 18, he mentioned the vice president's trip to a 3M manufacturing plant.
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MARC SHORT: A few weeks ago, the vice president took a trip to 3M manufacturing in Minnesota...
LOU DOBBS: Right. I remember.
SHORT: ...It is one of the primary producers of that.
MAK: Records show he holds up to $150,000 worth of 3M stock. On March 20, Short publicly hailed the work of Honeywell in producing respirator masks.
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SHORT: We're actually encouraging the partnership of the private sector to meet many of these needs. As some of you know, Honeywell is already retrofitting one of their factories to produce more respirator masks.
MAK: All in all, public disclosure forms show Short owns between half a million and $1.7 million worth of stock in companies that have been involved in the federal government's coronavirus response. The White House maintains that Short has acted appropriately, consulted with counsel and recused himself where necessary. Pence spokesman Devin O'Malley said, quote, "Marc Short has followed all applicable ethics laws and even sought to divest from potential financial conflicts." But the former director of the Office of Government Ethics, Walter Shaub, is calling for an investigation.
WALTER SHAUB: We have enough information to know that there is a serious possibility of a conflict of interest and a very realistic chance that he may have participated in matters affecting his financial interests. But we won't know unless the FBI or the public integrity section for the Justice Department do a proper investigation.
MAK: And here's Scott Amey, a lawyer for the watchdog group Project On Government Oversight.
SCOTT AMEY: I think it should be investigated, what he's doing on the coronavirus task force and the pandemic, and see if those actions at all conflict with his stock portfolio that he seems to have retained throughout this entire process.
MAK: Short sought what is called a certificate of divestiture. The certificate would give him a tax break to reduce the burden of complying with ethics law. As a condition for applying for the tax break, Short acknowledged that possible conflicts of interest exist. Ultimately, this tax break was not approved because his family trusts are very complicated and would be difficult to divest from, O'Malley said.
But ethics lawyers tell NPR that difficulty in divesting from possible conflicts of interest is not a permissible reason under the law to avoid addressing the issue. Short's two predecessors both divested from possible conflicts of interest. But since entering office nearly 16 months ago, Short has not divested his holdings in more than 100 listings of individual stocks, many of which could put Short at risk of running afoul of the law.
Tim Mak, NPR News, Washington.
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