Family of U.S. Ambassador Woody Johnson Bought London Properties, Sources Say

(Bloomberg) -- The family of Woody Johnson IV, the U.S. ambassador to Britain, bought a pair of office buildings in London’s financial district for about 300 million pounds ($393 million), according to people with knowledge of the deals.

The Donald Trump appointee, a billionaire heir to the Johnson & Johnson fortune, wasn’t directly involved in the 2018 acquisitions, said the people, who asked not to be identified because the deals were private. The investments were made on behalf of relatives by the Johnson family private office, which bought the buildings through New-York based investment firm Ella Valley Capital. The ambassador will not be a beneficiary of the investments, the people said.

Family of U.S. Ambassador Woody Johnson Bought London Properties, Sources Say

Spokesmen for the Johnson family office and the U.S. embassy in London declined to comment. Ella Valley Capital didn’t return messages seeking comment.

While U.S. ambassadors are subject to strict rules and established norms, it’s unusual for the families of diplomats to do business where they’re posted. Conflict of interest rules can apply to assets owned or acquired by a spouse or dependent children, but not other family members, said Delaney Marsco, a lawyer at the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington non-profit organization that advocates for restricting the influence of money in politics. But she says that the deals don’t look good.

“There’s an appearance issue here,” said Marsco, who specializes in ethics. “We should expect folks who are representing the United States to avoid even the appearance of a conflict.”

Mixing commerce and politics, though, has been a feature of the Trump administration, where the commander in chief routinely extols the qualities of the hotels and golf courses he still owns. The administration has faced numerous complaints about its ethical standards, starting with the president’s decision to transfer his assets to a trust rather than divest them. The complex holdings of some of his wealthy appointees, who were required to sell off investments that could pose a conflict, have also come under scrutiny.

The federal agency charged with overseeing compliance with ethics rules has rebuked administration officials for violating them. The Office of Government Ethics was also critical of the president’s decision not to divest his holdings.

Presidents of both parties regularly award some of their wealthiest campaign contributors with diplomatic appointments in prestigious cities like London. Johnson’s predecessor Matthew Barzun was the finance chairman for President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign.

Johnson -- with a net worth of about $4.2 billion according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index -- has multiple commercial real estate investments in the U.S. but does not hold any property directly in the U.K., according to financial disclosures. He resigned as chairman and chief executive officer of the family office, the Johnson Company Inc., prior to his appointment and also handed control of the New York Jets football team to his younger brother Christopher.

The London buildings, 24 King William Street and 55 Gresham Street, were both redeveloped immediately prior to being bought by the Johnson family. The larger Gresham Street building, which the family bought for about 200 million pounds, is rented to Investec Asset Management Ltd., the people said. The smaller building, next door to the new London headquarters of Wells Fargo & Co. on the north side of London Bridge, is leased to multiple tenants and still has several vacant floors, according to its website.

Family of U.S. Ambassador Woody Johnson Bought London Properties, Sources Say

Johnson’s diplomatic task will get more complicated if Britain crashes out of the European Union without a deal and is forced to quickly strike new deals with trading partners, like the U.S. American demands for “comprehensive access” to the U.K. farm market and measures to prevent Britain from “manipulating” its currency could be hard for London to swallow.

Even with Brexit looming, the U.K. is the top destination for cross-border private investment in offices, malls and warehouses, according to broker Knight Frank’s annual Wealth Report this week.

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