Billionaire activist investor Carl Icahn (center) at the 58th presidential inauguration in Washington, D.C. (Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg)

Icahn Ends White House Role After Conflict Questions Raised

(Bloomberg) -- Carl Icahn’s role as a special regulatory adviser to President Donald Trump has ended after questions were raised by Democratic lawmakers about potential conflicts of interest with his business dealings in oil refining and insurance.

In a letter to Trump addressing his departure that was posted Friday on Icahn’s website, the billionaire investor denied profiting from his advice-giving role -- a possibility raised by critics who had asked administration officials to investigate his work.

Icahn Ends White House Role After Conflict Questions Raised

“Contrary to the insinuations of a handful of your Democratic critics, I never had access to nonpublic information or profited from my position, nor do I believe that my role presented conflicts of interest,” Icahn wrote in the letter. “Indeed, out of an abundance of caution, the only issues I ever discussed with you were broad matters of policy affecting the refining industry.”

Icahn’s departure capped a tumultuous week for the White House following controversial comments by Trump that seemed to lend legitimacy to white supremacists and sparked a wave of CEO departures from presidential advisory panels. Three of the groups were disbanded this week.

Icahn, the majority owner of independent oil refiner CVR Energy Inc., drew criticism for pushing a change in U.S. biofuel policy that would benefit the company. Separate questions were raised in July regarding his role in regulatory decisions affecting American International Group Inc., an insurer in which he he holds a significant stake.

Net Worth

Icahn is worth about $18 billion, making him the 23rd richest person in the U.S., according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. He primarily invests his own fortune rather than relying on money from outsiders, and has investments across industries including health care, energy, metals, auto parts, casinos, telecommunications, real estate and rail cars.

Icahn said he was ending his arrangement with Trump’s blessing, “because I did not want partisan bickering about my role to in any way cloud your administration.”

Democratic Senators Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island sent a letter in July Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, asking whether there was correspondence between the billionaire and administration officials about AIG. The activist investor earlier had pushed for a break up of the insurer in order to help it escape its regulatory tag as “too-big-to-fail,” but eased his demands this year. 

“We write to seek assurances that Mr. Icahn has not provided input on or received information” on a pending decision regarding AIG’s status as a systemically important financial institution, the senators wrote. Icahn is one of the top five shareholders of AIG.

Biofuel Compliance

Prices for biofuel compliance credits known as renewable identification numbers (RINs) have been volatile since Trump’s election and Icahn’s appointment as special adviser.

Six Democratic senators asked the White House and Environmental Protection Agency administrator Scott Pruitt to detail their interactions with Icahn on the issue. They argued that Icahn’s appointment ran afoul of ethics standards and presented a conflict of interest because Icahn hadn’t made any obvious effort to separate his business holdings from his broad mandate to address regulations in his advisory role.

The value of Icahn’s stake in the Texas refiner increased some by $491 million between Nov. 8 and Aug. 2, to about $1.4 billion, a period running from Trump’s election to the day before reports surfaced that the Trump administration was set to reject the bid to relieve refiners of the biofuels burden.

Departure Cheered

Icahn’s departure was hailed by some of his fiercest critics, some of whom linked the move to the EPA’s decision to reject the biofuel policy change the billionaire had advocated.

“Until a combination of public scrutiny and the lobbying of ethanol interests defeated his effort, Icahn appeared poised to leverage his special status with Trump into a regulatory tweak that would save his refining company $200 million annually,” said Robert Weissman, president of the watchdog group Public Citizen

“Unfortunately for Icahn, the scheme collapsed. Now that his opportunity for personal profit seems to have vanished, so too has his interest in regulatory policy,” Weissman said.

Icahn endorsed Trump for president in September 2015, shortly after the real estate developer and reality television star announced his run, and was frequently mentioned as a potential Treasury secretary, a role he repeatedly said he had no interest in.

Prior to being named a special adviser in December, he’d backed many of Trump’s campaign ideas. He supported tax deals to encourage corporations to bring back overseas profits and stay based in the U.S., and backed calls to end the carried interest tax discount for hedge fund and private equity managers.

Icahn, 81, attended Trump’s post-election victory party but left in the early hours of the morning to bet about $1 billion on U.S. equities, he told Bloomberg at the time. U.S. stock prices tumbled on news of Trump’s election but quickly rebounded, on the way to a string of record highs.

Having achieved fame and fortune as a corporate raider in the 1980s, Icahn rebranded himself as an activist investor and outspoken shareholder advocate. In recent years, Icahn has taken stakes in companies including Apple Inc., Hertz Global Holdings Inc., Xerox Corp. and eBay Inc., agitating for shareholder-enriching changes.

A message left for Icahn’s spokeswoman wasn’t immediately returned.

Icahn, in his letter to Trump, repeatedly diminished his influence over biofuel policy, describing himself as having shared only "limited insights" with the president. “I sincerely regret that because of your extremely busy schedule, as well as my own, I have not had the opportunity to spend nearly as much time as I’d hoped on regulatory issues,”Icahn wrote.