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Biden Justice Department Nominee Faces Ethics Minefield From Father’s Corporate Interests

Biden nominee Vanita Gupta (Photo by Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images)
• February 2, 2021 3:45 pm

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President Joe Biden cast Vanita Gupta as an upstart civil rights lawyer when nominating her for the number three position at the Department of Justice. But Gupta is also the daughter of a wealthy and powerful chemical executive—prompting ethics concerns that she did not address in her Senate nominations questionnaire.

Her father is Rajiv L. Gupta, a chemicals magnate turned Wall Street adviser and board member for Fortune 500 companies. Gupta made no mention of her father's sprawling corporate network on a Senate Judiciary Committee questionnaire that asked her to identify prospective conflicts, despite the fact that the Justice Department has repeatedly sparred with her father's businesses in recent years.

The issue is especially pressing since Biden has made integrity and public confidence touchstones of his DOJ picks, in light of purported damage to the department's prestige under former president Donald Trump. If confirmed, Gupta will serve as associate attorney general, the officer that advises the A.G. on Justice Department priorities and oversees key units like the antitrust division, the civil division, the tax division, and the environment and natural resources division, all of which could conceivably abut her father's businesses.

Rajiv Gupta was a decades-long employee of the Rohm and Haas Company, a Philadelphia-based manufacturer and distributor of speciality chemicals for electronics and construction. Gupta, an immigrant from India, joined the company as a financial analyst in the early 1970s. He was chairman and CEO by the turn of the century. Under his leadership, the company expanded its presence in China, opening a manufacturing plant in the Guangdong province and a $60 million research center in Shanghai. He orchestrated Dow Chemical's $18 billion acquisition of Rohm and Haas in 2009.

Since stepping down as CEO, Gupta has served on the boards of Fortune 500 companies like Avantor, HP, and DuPont de Nemours Inc. He also advises the private equity firm New Mountain Capital, which manages over $30 billion, and sat on the board of the Vanguard Group, one of the big three index funds.

The Justice Department has investigated or supervised Gupta-connected entities in recent years. It had to approve a proposed merger between DuPont and Dow Chemical and set terms before greenlighting the move in 2017. In 2020, Justice Department lawyers and the EPA settled a lawsuit with DuPont involving environmental law violations at a chemical manufacturing facility in Texas. The antitrust division and the natural resources division handled those matters. Vanita Gupta would oversee both sections if confirmed as associate A.G.

Despite that recent history, Gupta did not list her father's business concerns on a standard Judiciary Committee questionnaire for executive branch nominees. That form asks the nominee to identify family members likely to trigger ethical tripwires. She did list her husband's ongoing practice with the Legal Aid Society of the District of Columbia, where he serves as legal director.

"Any potential conflicts of interest will be resolved in accordance with the terms of an ethics agreement that I will enter into with the Department's designated agency ethics official," she wrote on the questionnaire.

The questionnaire's conflicts question is open-ended and does not specifically call on nominees to disclose conflicts with a parent. DOJ ethics guidance on the other hand requires employees to anticipate real or perceived conflicts with a parent. That guidance says Justice Department employees should not work on any matter involving "a relative with whom an employee has a close relationship" or "a present or prospective employer of a spouse, parent, or child," unless authorized by their superiors and an ethics official.

Former attorney general William Barr's substantial private sector ties provided ample fodder for opponents of his confirmation. Over 20 years in private practice, Barr was a top lawyer in the telecommunications space, built a portfolio of white-collar clients with the law firm Kirkland & Ellis, and sat on several corporate boards.

"To be attorney general of the United States, Mr. Barr must prove his loyalty will be to the law, instead of his many corporate conflicts and President Trump—and he has not done so," Caroline Ciccone, executive director of the left-wing oversight group Restore Public Trust, said of Barr's nomination in 2018.

Questions over how Gupta will navigate her family's considerable corporate connections could delay progress on her nomination. The Judiciary Committee has yet to schedule a nomination hearing for Gupta's would-be boss, Judge Merrick Garland. And left-wing pressure groups like Demand Justice are urging the Democrat-controlled committee to move a package of judicial nominees as soon as it processes Garland's nomination. In the interim, a Justice Department official could fill management posts like Gupta's on an acting basis.

A White House spokesperson did not return the Washington Free Beacon‘s requests for comment.