President Joe Biden's Asia czar owns part of a "shadow lobbying firm" that gives strategic advice to corporations doing business in Asia, a position that ethics experts say could create conflicts of interest.
Kurt Campbell is the founder and former CEO of the Asia Group, a strategic consultancy firm based in Washington, D.C., and Hong Kong. He spent the past eight years running the group and is still listed as the owner of the Asia Group's investment bank arm, according to the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs.
The Asia Group bills itself as the "premier strategic advisory firm to the world's leading companies seeking to excel across Asia" and provides businesses with strategic advice on government policy and business, including "advice to market leaders looking for investment opportunities in China's Belt & Road Initiative," a global infrastructure project by the Chinese government that has been deemed a security threat by U.S. officials.
Campbell's work for the firm could pose a conflict with his role as director of Asia policy at the National Security Council, where he is likely to encounter issues that overlap with his former clients' interests.
Jeff Hauser, the director of the Revolving Door Project at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, described the Asia Group as a "shadow lobbying firm." He said such firms, which have become prevalent in Washington, provide lobbying-like services but use legal loopholes to get around laws that would otherwise require them to register and disclose their clients.
Campbell's appointment to the National Security Council position was "worrisome because Campbell has been spending the last few years advising multinational and non-American companies in how to get the best results in Washington and capitals across Asia," said Hauser.
"I think it's just kind of hard for him to do his job without there being a conflict," Hauser said. "I think [the White House is] sort of baking conflict in by hiring somebody who has had such a disparate number of clients."
One conflict could be Campbell's work in China, the country that poses the most pressing geopolitical concerns for Biden's new administration. The Asia Group, which doesn't disclose its clients, says on its website that it "represents a diverse client base in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors, from leading Fortune 500 multinational corporations to cutting-edge early-stage companies" in the defense, tech, aviation, and medical industries in Asia.
Corporate records show Campbell founded the consulting firm in 2012, during his final months serving as an assistant secretary at the State Department. He spent the past eight years as CEO, stepping down on Jan. 14 after Biden appointed him.
Campbell still co-owns the Asia Group's bank arm, the Asia Group Capital Advisory Partners (TAG Capital), with a Shanghai tech tycoon with close ties to the Chinese government and numerous business interests under the jurisdiction of Chinese regulators.
It is unclear if Campbell has divested from TAG Capital or whether the investment bank is still actively operating. He is listed as an owner in the company's Washington, D.C., business filings. An official at the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs told the Washington Free Beacon that businesses are required to file ownership changes immediately, and they have not yet received any change notices.
Campbell did not respond to a request for comment. The White House did not return a request for comment or respond to a request for Campbell's financial disclosure records. Those records are not yet available for many new administration hires.
According to a July 2020 financial disclosure report filed by Campbell's wife Lael Brainard—who has served on the Federal Reserve Board of Governors since 2014—Campbell held partial ownership of the Asia Group, TAG Capital, and a company called the Asia Group Capital Ventures as of last summer. He received distributions, shares of partnership income, and consulting fees from the companies, and the value of the businesses was "not readily ascertainable," according to the disclosure.
Campbell should "absolutely" divest from the companies if he has not already, said Hauser.
"It's quite possible he has already. If he has not, that is atrocious," Hauser said. "You have a powerful government figure with a direct way to profit that is pretty obvious. He absolutely should have no ties to any consulting company."
According to the TAG Capital website, which was removed from the internet in 2019, the firm is "a boutique investment bank specializing in cross-border transactions across the Asia-Pacific region." The company listed its main headquarters in Hong Kong and Washington, D.C.
"We draw on unparalleled relationships and decades of experience in every leading and emerging market in Asia to identify, advance, and execute unique opportunities for companies on both sides of the Pacific," said the website, noting that the company’s leadership had "deep insights into political and economic conditions and priorities at central, provincial, and municipal levels in governments throughout Asia."
The co-owner of TAG Capital is Robert Roche, an American ex-pat who lives in Shanghai and runs a multibillion-dollar labyrinth of Chinese and Cayman Islands-based media and technology companies. His flagship corporation, Acorn International, describes itself as "a leading direct marketing and branding company in China," with a diverse range of holdings in the advertising, e-commerce, and food sectors.
Roche's conglomerate operates under extensive regulations from the Chinese government, according to Acorn International’s Securities and Exchange Commission filings. "We operate our direct sales and advertising businesses in China under a legal regime consisting of the State Council, which is the highest authority of the executive branch of the PRC central government, and several ministries and agencies under its authority," the company disclosed.