- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 21, 2014

A conservative-leaning watchdog group has filed an ethics complaint against Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, accusing him of violating the chamber’s code of conduct by pushing to help a politically connected Las Vegas casino project get visas for foreign investors.

The complaint, filed with the Senate Select Committee on Ethics by Cause of Action, is based in part on a Washington Times investigation last year. That investigation found that after pressure from Mr. Reid and his staff, the Obama administration overruled career Homeland Security officials and expedited visa applications for about two dozen foreign investors for the casino.

D.C.-based Cause of Action argues in a letter to the Senate ethics panel that by urging expedited approval of a specific set of visa applications, the Nevada Democrat may have run afoul of the Senate’s Code of Official Conduct. The complaint also notes that Mr. Reid’s son, Rory Reid, and his law firm are legal counsel to the SLS Hotel & Casino.

“The American people deserve better,” wrote Daniel Z. Epstein, executive director of Cause of Action. “It is unfair for politicians to attempt to influence the enforcement of our laws, especially when they — or their close family members — stand to benefit.”

The complaint also reignites the debate over the EB-5 investor program, which has been under an internal department investigation. Auditors are looking into whether the former head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, Alejandro Mayorkas, put undue pressure on subordinates to approve visa applications being sought by a clean-energy company called GreenTech co-founded by Terry McAuliffe, who is now Virginia’s governor.

The EB-5 program allows foreign investors to obtain legal status in exchange for pledges to invest $500,000 to $1 million in job-creating U.S. companies. It has come under fire from critics who argue that it isn’t selective enough and allows wealthy foreigners a leg up in the immigration system.

SEE ALSO: VEGAS RULES: Harry Reid pushed feds to change ruling for casino’s big-money foreigners

In the case of Mr. Reid, The Times reported that despite early pressure from Mr. Reid’s staff, career officials inside the Department of Homeland Security initially turned down the SLS Hotel application on the grounds that it failed to meet the criteria for expedited review. The decision, dated Dec. 17, 2012, stated flatly that “there is no appeal or reconsideration of this decision.”

That simply prompted Mr. Reid to reach out directly to Mr. Mayorkas to overturn the ruling, setting into motion a process that consumed top political officials inside the Homeland Security and Commerce departments and ultimately resulted in a ruling that granted expedited status to the hotel over the objections of career officials.

Questions of access

A spokeswoman for Mr. Reid told The Times in December that the senator “has supported and will support the SLS Las Vegas in any way he can.”

“Sen. Reid believes it is his job to do all he can to promote economic growth and development in the state, and he makes no apologies for helping to bring jobs to Nevada,” spokeswoman Kristen Orthman said.

A spokesman for the ethics committee and Chairwoman Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, said they couldn’t comment on the details of any investigation. The complaint, dated Dec. 16, was reported Tuesday morning by Watchdog.org.

In it, Cause of Action questions senators’ access to decision-makers.

“Career employees at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, for example, have claimed that ‘top managers have given … politically connected applicants special treatment,’” Mr. Epstein wrote. “Senator Reid’s full and honest disclosure will help to maintain public faith in the integrity of our political and legal institutions, avoid suspicion of the politicization of the executive branch, and dispel any appearance of impropriety amongst members of the Senate.”

Matter of security

USCIS has said it takes seriously the responsibility to safeguard national security and public safety while deciding requests for immigration benefits.

“USCIS subjects all benefit requests to a background check process which includes coordinating with law enforcement agencies where applicable,” the agency said in a statement. “USCIS does not proceed to a final decision regarding any benefit requests until concerns identified during the background check process are sufficiently resolved.”

Mr. McAuliffe and Mr. Mayorkas have denied that any untoward influence was used in their case, but Mr. McAuliffe did divest from GreenTech after being elected governor in November. He reported earning more than $10,000 in wages from GreenTech and holding more than $250,000 in stock in the company in 2012.

He resigned from the company on Dec. 1, 2012, though the news wasn’t publicly reported for months.

The Homeland Security inspector general’s office has been investigating that issue. The man nominated to lead that office, John Roth, told senators this month that completing that review will be a high priority for him.

• David Sherfinski can be reached at dsherfinski@washingtontimes.com.

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