Probe of visa program threatens to sidetrack DHS nomination


Immigration Services Director (USCIS) Alejandro Mayorkas listens to a question on Capitol Hill in 2010. (Harry Hamburg/AP)
July 23, 2013

The Department of Homeland Security’s inspector general is investigating whether a top Obama administration immigration official improperly helped foreign investors obtain U.S. visas, according to congressional staffers familiar with the inquiry.

The probe of Alejandro Mayorkas, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, threatens to delay Senate consideration of his nomination as second in command at the DHS.

The investigation also poses difficulties for the Virginia gubernatorial campaign of Democrat Terry McAuliffe, who co-founded an electric car firm tied to a company involved in the probe. His opponent, Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II (R), attacked McAuliffe on Tuesday for his ties to the case.

Mayorkas was expected to take over running the DHS in an acting capacity after Secretary Janet Napolitano leaves her post in coming weeks. His Senate confirmation hearing was scheduled for Thursday under an expedited approval process requested by the White House.

But on Tuesday, Sen. Tom Coburn (Okla.), the ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, asked that the nomination be put on hold until the inspector general’s inquiry is completed, according to a Coburn aide. Chairman Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.) has not made a decision on whether to delay the hearing, aides said.

Details of the investigation, first reported by the Associated Press, remained murky Tuesday, but the probe centers on the EB-5 visa program, which permits foreign nationals to enter the United States if they agree to invest $500,000 to $1 million to create U.S. jobs.

Inspector General Charles K. Edwards launched the inquiry last year following a tip from an FBI counterintelligence analyst concerned about the program, which is dominated by applicants from China, according to news media reports.

Mayorkas’s assistance was sought in January by Anthony Rodham, who runs Gulf Coast Funds Management in McLean and is the brother of former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton, according to e-mails posted on Watchdog.org, a conservative Web site.

The company pools investments from foreign citizens wanting to invest in U.S. businesses as part of the EB-5 program. Rodham and other Gulf Coast officials wrote to Mayorkas and others at the DHS asking for help with delays that they said were harming GreenTech Automotive, a firm co-founded by McAuliffe. The former Democratic National Committee chairman is a longtime friend of Bill and Hillary Clinton.

McAuliffe quietly stepped down as chairman of GreenTech on Dec. 1. He reported on a financial disclosure form filed last year that he owned more than $250,000 worth of GreenTech stock.

Cuccinelli said in a statement that many questions “remain unanswered” about the business practices of GreenTech and McAuliffe because of the Democrat’s unwillingness to discuss the issue.

“I think it’s time for Terry McAuliffe to come forward and answer questions about this serious matter,” Cuccinelli said. “Virginians deserve to know the truth about McAuliffe and GreenTech’s potentially inappropriate solicitation of EB-5 visas.”

McAuliffe spokesman Josh Schwerin fired back at Cuccinelli, who has faced scrutiny for accepting gifts from Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the Star Scientific chief executive whose activities have spawned multiple investigations.

“The investigation does not involve Terry and we hope that it is completed in a timely matter,” Schwerin said. “Cuccinelli’s attacks are an attempt to distract from his ties to the Star Scientific scandal.”

DHS officials declined to comment, and the agency’s inspector general did not respond to requests Tuesday. An e-mail sent by the department to Senate staffers Monday said the inquiry into the EB-5 program had not determined “any findings of criminal misconduct.”

Officials for Gulf Coast and GreenTech said they were unaware of the inspector general’s investigation.

Gulf Coast general counsel Simone Williams said in an interview Tuesday that there were widespread complaints about “huge delays” in the EB-5 program, and said the company “abides by all regulations” in seeking visas.

GreenTech executive Marianne McInerney said in a statement that the company “has not been contacted” by the inspector general’s office and has not contacted immigration officials.

“GTA participates in the EB-5 program as only one part of our business plan,” McInerney said, adding that the program “has enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress for more than 20 years and has been an important driver in U.S. job creation.”

Gulf Coast has federal approval to be a “regional center” managing all EB-5 investments in Mississippi and Louisiana. The firm is headquartered in the same Tysons Corner complex that houses GreenTech’s corporate offices, and GreenTech is the only company mentioned on the “Portfolio Companies” section of the investment firm’s Web site.

In addition to Rodham as president and chief executive, Gulf Coast’s board includes Margaret Richardson, an Internal Revenue Service commissioner during the Clinton administration, and Kathleen Blanco, former Democratic governor of Louisiana.

As a U.S. attorney in California during the Clinton administration, Mayorkas came under fire for seeking a change in punishment for a drug dealer who was the son of a Democratic donor. Hugh Rodham, another brother of Hillary Clinton, was hired to lobby for commutation.

ben.pershing@washpost.com

Tom Hamburger covers the intersection of money and politics for The Washington Post.
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