France to sue Google, Apple over developer contracts: minister

PARIS – France said on Wednesday it will take Google and Apple to court and seek fines of 2 million euros ($2.5 million) over what it termed “abusive” contractual terms imposed by the tech giants on startups and developers.

Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire told RTL radio he had been made aware that Apple Inc. and Alphabet Inc.’s Google unilaterally imposed prices and contract changes on developers selling software on Google Play and Apple’s App Store.

“I will therefore be taking Google and Apple to the Paris commercial court for abusive trade practices,” Le Maire said.

“As powerful as they are, Google and Apple should not be able to treat our startups and our developers the way they currently do.”

France’s DGCCRF consumer fraud watchdog confirmed in a subsequent statement that it had begun legal action against the U.S. technology groups.

The Google logo is seen at the “Station F” start up campus in Paris, France, February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

Google spokeswoman Mathilde Mechin said: “We believe our terms comply with French laws and are looking forward to making our case in court.” An Apple spokeswoman did not respond to requests for comment.

Le Maire also said he expected the European Union to close tax loopholes that benefit Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon by the start of 2019. Brussels is currently examining measures to improve the taxation of overseas tech giants’ online business in European markets.

($1 = 0.8093 euros)

(Reporting by Laurence Frost and Julie Carriat; Editing by Sudip Kar-Gupta)

Finland is world’s happiest country, U.S. discontent grows: U.N. report

VATICAN CITY – Finland is the world’s happiest country, according to an annual survey issued on Wednesday that found Americans were getting less happy even as their country became richer.

Burundi came bottom in the U.N. Sustainable Development Solutions Network’s (SDSN) 2018 World Happiness Report which ranked 156 countries according to things such as GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, social freedom, generosity and absence of corruption.

Taking the harsh, dark winters in their stride, Finns said access to nature, safety, childcare, good schools and free healthcare were among the best things about in their country.

“I’ve joked with the other Americans that we are living the American dream here in Finland,” said Brianna Owens, who moved from the United States and is now a teacher in Espoo, Finland’s second biggest city with a population of around 280,000.

“I think everything in this society is set up for people to be successful, starting with university and transportation that works really well,” Owens told Reuters.

Finland, rose from fifth place last year to oust Norway from the top spot. The 2018 top-10, as ever dominated by the Nordics, is: Finland, Norway, Denmark, Iceland, Switzerland, Netherlands Canada, New Zealand, Sweden and Australia.

The United States came in at 18th, down from 14th place last year. Britain was 19th and the United Arab Emirates 20th.

One chapter of the 170-page report is dedicated to emerging health problems such as obesity, depression and the opioid crisis, particularly in the United States where the prevalence of all three has grown faster than in most other countries.

While U.S. income per capita has increased markedly over the last half century, happiness has been hit by weakened social support networks, a perceived rise in corruption in government and business and declining confidence in public institutions.

“We obviously have a social crisis in the United States: more inequality, less trust, less confidence in government,” the head of the SDSN, Professor Jeffrey Sachs of New York’s Columbia University, told Reuters as the report was launched at the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

“It’s pretty stark right now. The signs are not good for the U.S. It is getting richer and richer but not getting happier.”

Asked how the current political situation in the United States could affect future happiness reports, Sachs said:

“Time will tell, but I would say that in general that when confidence in government is low, when perceptions of corruption are high, inequality is high and health conditions are worsening … that is not conducive to good feelings.”

For the first time since it was started in 2012, the report, which uses a variety of polling organizations, official figures and research methods, ranked the happiness of foreign-born immigrants in 117 countries.

Finland took top honors in that category too, giving the country a statistical double-gold status.

The foreign-born were least happy in Syria, which has been mired in civil war for seven years.

“The most striking finding of the report is the remarkable consistency between the happiness of immigrants and the locally born,” said Professor John Helliwell of Canada’s University of British Columbia.

“Although immigrants come from countries with very different levels of happiness, their reported life evaluations converge towards those of other residents in their new countries,” he said.

“Those who move to happier countries gain, while those who move to less happy countries lose.”

(Reporting By Philip Pullella; Additional reporting by Reuters television in Finland; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

China says new agency will improve foreign aid coordination

BEIJING – China plans to set up an international development cooperation agency to better coordinate foreign aid and promote its ‘Belt and Road’ initiative, State Councillor Wang Yong said on Tuesday.

The new agency will be responsible for forming policies on foreign aid, as well as granting aid and overseeing its implementation, according to a parliamentary document released earlier in the day.

“This will allow aid to fully play its important role in great power diplomacy… and will better serve the building of the ‘belt and road’,” Wang told parliament.

The new agency will work directly under the State Council, China’s cabinet, and will combine the overseas aid related responsibilities of the ministry of commerce and foreign affairs, Wang said.

The Belt and Road initiative refers to President Xi Jinping’s landmark scheme to build a new Silk Road, connecting China to Asia, Africa, Europe and beyond.

The new agency will be formed as part of a broad reshuffle of government departments that China’s largely rubber-stamp parliament will formally approve on Saturday.

A new state immigration administration agency responsible for border control, repatriating illegal immigrants and managing foreigners and refugees would also be set up under China’s Ministry of Public Security, Wang said.

China has only occasionally provided details of its foreign aid program in recent years.

The last time it did, in a policy paper released in 2014, it said more than half of China’s foreign aid of more than $14 billion between 2010 and 2012 went to Africa, underscoring Beijing’s interest in the resource-rich continent to fuel its economy.

It provided no breakdown of aid recipients or any yearly figures. In 2011, China put its total foreign aid over the past six decades at 256.29 billion yuan ($40.51 billion).

An analysis by AidData, a research lab at William Mary University in the U.S. state of Virginia, found that official Chinese development assistance from 2000 to 2014 totaled $81 billion, with Cuba receiving the most aid.

Overseas aid provided by the United States over the same period was $366 billion, AidData said.

Much of China’s overseas finance is made in the form of loans or export credits, which allow infrastructure-for-resource deals.

This approach gives China an advantage over the United States in Africa, the official China Daily said on Tuesday in an editorial on U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s visit to the continent.

“China has been working for years to try to meet Africa’s needs, helping African countries build railways, bridges and ports,” the newspaper said.

“That is why most African countries have sought to forge a partnership with China,” it said.

Some Chinese projects have attracted attention for China’s support of governments with poor human rights records and lack of transparency, such as Zimbabwe, Sudan and Angola.

China will host a once-every-three-years summit with African leaders in Beijing in September.

(Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Christian Shepherd; Editing by Paul Tait & Simon Cameron-Moore)

EU adds Bahamas, U.S. Virgin Islands, St Kitts to tax haven list

Euro coins are seen in front of displayed flag and map of European Union in this picture illustration taken in Zenica, May 28 2015. (REUTERS/Dado Ruvic)

BRUSSELS – European Union finance ministers added the Bahamas, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Saint Kitts and Nevis to the EU blacklist of tax havens on Tuesday, an EU document said.

The ministers have also decided in their regular monthly meeting to remove Bahrain, the Marshall Islands and Saint Lucia, confirming earlier Reuters reports.

EU set to add Bahamas, U.S. Virgin Islands to tax haven blacklist

The blacklist, set up to discourage the use of shell structures abroad, currently includes nine jurisdictions. The other six are American Samoa, Guam, Namibia, Palau, Samoa and Trinidad and Tobago.

On Tuesday, ministers also decided to add Anguilla, the British Virgin Islands, Dominica and Antigua and Barbuda to a so-called gray list of jurisdictions which do not respect EU anti-tax avoidance standards but have committed to change their practices.

The blacklist was set up in December, but Caribbean islands hit by hurricanes last year were given more time to adapt their tax practices to EU requests.

(Reporting by Francesco Guarascio; editing by Philip Blenkinsop)

Trump fires top diplomat Tillerson, taps CIA’s Pompeo

WASHINGTON – U.S. President Donald Trump fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday after a series of public rifts over policy on North Korea, Russia and Iran, replacing his chief diplomat with loyalist CIA Director Mike Pompeo.

The biggest shakeup of Trump’s Cabinet since he took office in January 2017 was announced by the president on Twitter as his administration works toward a meeting with North Korea’s leader.

The rare firing of the United States’ top diplomat capped months of friction between the Republican president and the 65-year-old former Exxon Mobil Corp chief executive. The tensions peaked last fall amid reports Tillerson had called Trump a “moron” and considered resigning. Tillerson never denied using the word.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson answers questions during the daily briefing at the White House in Washington, DC, U.S. on November 20, 2017. (REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo)

Some foreign policy experts expressed dismay at the decision to swap out top diplomats so soon before the unprecedented meeting and worried that Pompeo would encourage Trump to scrap the Iran nuclear deal and be hawkish on North Korea.

Critics said the move would sow more instability in the volatile Trump administration and marks the departure of another moderate who sought to emphasize the United States’ strong ties to its allies amid Trump’s criticism. Last week, top economic adviser Gary Cohn quit after Trump announced trade tariffs that would affect U.S. allies.

Trump announced the changes in a morning Twitter post and later told reporters more about why he removed Tillerson.

“We got along actually quite well but we disagreed on things,” Trump said. “When you look at the Iran deal: I think it’s terrible, I guess he thinks it was OK. I wanted to break it or do something, and he felt a little bit differently.”

Later at the State Department, a visibly emotional Tillerson said Trump called him around noon from Air Force One and that he had also spoken with White House Chief of Staff John Kelly.

He said his tenure ends on March 31 but he would delegate his responsibilities to John Sullivan, deputy secretary of state, at the end of Tuesday.

“What is most important is to ensure an orderly and smooth transition during a time that the country continues to face significant policy and national security challenges,” Tillerson, whose voice quivered at times, told reporters in a packed briefing room.

Tillerson had developed a strong relationship with Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis, and the two were seen as a moderating influence on some of Trump’s policies.

“I’m told for the first time in most people’s memory the Department of State and the Department of Defense have a close working relationship where we all agree the U.S. leadership starts with diplomacy,” he said.

In contrast, Trump said he and Pompeo have “a similar thought process.”

Pompeo, a former Army officer who represented a Kansas district in the House of Representatives before taking the CIA job, is seen as a Trump loyalist who has enjoyed a less hostile relationship with career spies than Tillerson had with career diplomats.

Trump chose the Central Intelligence Agency’s deputy director, Gina Haspel, to replace Pompeo at the CIA. A veteran CIA clandestine officer, Haspel is backed by many in the U.S. intelligence community but is regarded warily by some in Congress for her involvement in the agency’s “black site” detention facilities.

Senior White House officials said Trump wanted his new team in place before any summit with Kim Jong Un, who invited the U.S. president to meet by May after months of escalating tensions over North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.


Tillerson’s imminent departure had been rumored for several months, and Trump said he and Tillerson had discussed the move. State Department officials said Tillerson did not know why he was being pushed out and had intended to stay. One of them was fired later on Tuesday.

Foreign policy experts from Republican and Democratic administrations also questioned Trump’s timing and choice, noting that Pompeo was known as a political partisan who strongly opposed the 2015 Iran nuclear deal.

Evans Revere, a former senior U.S. diplomat who dealt with North Korea under President George W. Bush, said Trump’s move sends “a bad signal about the role of diplomacy.”

“Tillerson’s replacement by … Pompeo, who is known as a political partisan and an opponent of the Iran agreement, raises the prospect of the collapse of that deal, and increases the possibility that the administration might soon face not one, but two nuclear crises,” he said.

Senior White House officials said Chief of Staff Kelly had asked Tillerson to step down on Friday but did not want to make it public while he was on a trip to Africa. Trump’s Twitter announcement came only a few hours after Tillerson landed in Washington.

Tillerson appeared to be caught by surprise last week when Trump announced he had accepted Kim’s invitation to meet and the secretary of state cut short his trip.

“Mike Pompeo, Director of the CIA, will become our new Secretary of State. He will do a fantastic job! Thank you to Rex Tillerson for his service! Gina Haspel will become the new Director of the CIA, and the first woman so chosen. Congratulations to all!” Trump said on Twitter.

Tillerson joined a long list of senior officials who have either resigned or been fired since Trump took office. Others include strategist Steve Bannon, national security adviser Michael Flynn, Federal Bureau of Investigation Director James Comey, White House Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, health secretary Tom Price, communications directors Hope Hicks and Anthony Scaramucci, economic adviser Gary Cohn and press secretary Sean Spicer.


Trump publicly undercut Tillerson’s diplomatic initiatives numerous times.

In December, Tillerson had offered to begin direct talks with North Korea without preconditions, backing away from a U.S. demand that Pyongyang must accept that any negotiations would be about giving up its nuclear arsenal.

The White House distanced itself from those remarks, and a few days later Tillerson himself backed off.

Several months earlier in Beijing, Tillerson said the United States was directly communicating with North Korea but that Pyongyang had shown no interest in dialogue. Trump contradicted Tillerson’s efforts a day later.

“I told Rex Tillerson, our wonderful Secretary of State, that he is wasting his time trying to negotiate with Little Rocket Man,” Trump wrote on Twitter, using a pejorative nickname for Kim.

Tillerson and Mattis had pressed a skeptical Trump to stick with the nuclear agreement with Iran and other world powers, and Tillerson has taken a more hawkish view than Trump on Russia.

If confirmed by the U.S. Senate after an April committee hearing, Pompeo will be taking over a State Department shaken by the departures of many senior diplomats and embittered by proposed budget cuts.

Lawmakers from both major parties have criticized those cuts and the administration’s failure to fill dozens of open jobs there.

But over time, many lawmakers grew to appreciate Tillerson as a relatively steady hand in the chaotic Trump administration.

“He represented a stable view with regard to the implementation of diplomacy in North Korea, Iran and other places in the world,” said Senator Ben Cardin, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during most of Tillerson’s tenure.

(By Roberta Rampton and Lesley Wroughton; Additional reporting by Steve Holland, Patricia Zengerle, David Brunnstrom, Arshad Mohammed, Susan Heavey, Paul Simao, Lisa Lambert, David Alexander, Makini Brice; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Bill Trott and Jonathan Oatis)


EU experts’ fake news report draws false conclusions: consumer group

BRUSSELS – A consumer group on Monday said experts appointed by the European Commission to advise on tackling fake news had ignored the business model that gave the likes of Google and Facebook a motive for disseminating it.

The tech giants have come under fire in Europe for not doing enough to remove misleading or illegal content, including incitement to hatred, extremism and the online sale of counterfeit products.

The EU executive will publish a non-binding policy paper on the subject in the spring.

The group of 39 experts it appointed, including representatives from social media, news media and the public, called for a code of principles for online platforms and social networks.

It said companies should provide transparency by explaining how algorithms selected news shown to the public, promote media literacy and develop tools to help consumers tackle the issue.

The experts also said authorities should let the companies regulate themselves.

Both Google and Facebook have expressed support for better controls over illicit content, saying they favor a code of conduct they could adhere to rather than being required to police such content themselves.

But Monique Goyens, Director General of BEUC – an umbrella group for 43 national consumer organizations from 31 European countries – said the experts’ report had failed to address one of the core causes of fake news.

Monique Goyens, head of the BEUC, the European consumer organization, addresses a joint news conference with European Climate Action Commissioner Connie Hedegaard of Denmark (not pictured) at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels July 11, 2012. (REUTERS/Francois Lenoir)

“Platforms such as Google or Facebook massively benefit from users reading and sharing fake news articles which contain advertisements. But this expert group choose to ignore this business model. This is head-in-the-sand politics,” she said in a statement.

“The burden for de-bunking fake news should not rest on people,” she said, adding that the non-binding code of principles could turn out to be toothless.

(Reporting by Foo Yun Chee; editing by John Stonestreet)

EU set to add Bahamas, U.S. Virgin Islands to tax haven blacklist

BRUSSELS – The Bahamas, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Saint Kitts and Nevis are set to be added next week to a European Union blacklist of tax havens, raising to nine the number of jurisdictions on it, an EU document seen by Reuters shows.

The decision, taken by EU tax experts, is set to be endorsed by EU finance ministers at a regular monthly meeting on Tuesday, when the 28 EU governments are also expected to delist Bahrain, the Marshall Islands and Saint Lucia.

As a result of both moves, the blacklist would maintain nine jurisdictions deemed to facilitate tax avoidance. The other six are American Samoa, Guam, Namibia, Palau, Samoa and Trinidad and Tobago.

The document, prepared by EU officials and dated March 8, also adds Anguilla, The British Virgin Islands, Dominica and Antigua and Barbuda to a so-called grey list of jurisdictions which do not respect EU anti-tax avoidance standards but have committed to change their practices.

The grey list includes dozens of jurisdictions from all over the world.

Blacklisted jurisdictions could face reputational damage and stricter controls on their financial transactions with the EU, although no sanctions have been agreed by EU states yet.

Those who are in the grey list could be moved to the blacklist if they do not honor their commitments.

Caribbean islands hit by hurricanes last year were given more time to comply with EU tax transparency standards when the bloc’s blacklist was established in December.

Earlier this month, EU experts decided to propose the delisting of Bahrain, the Marshall Islands and Saint Lucia, a document dated March 2 showed.

That attracted criticism from anti-corruption activists who called for disclosure of the commitments made by the delisted jurisdictions. These engagements remain secret.

The initial blacklist included 17 jurisdictions, but after one month eight were removed. They were Barbados, Grenada, South Korea, Macau, Mongolia, Tunisia, the United Arab Emirates and Panama. That move was also widely criticized by some EU lawmakers and activists.

Panama’s delisting caused a particular outcry as the EU process to set up the tax-haven blacklist was triggered by publication of the Panama Papers – documents that showed how wealthy individuals and multinational corporations use offshore schemes to reduce their tax bills.

EU countries were not screened. They were deemed to be already in line with EU standards against tax avoidance, though anti-corruption activists and lawmakers have repeatedly asked for some EU members such as Malta and Luxembourg to be blacklisted.

(Reporting by Francesco Guarascio; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Taxi drivers protest against Uber ‘invasion’ in Greece

ATHENS – Hundreds of taxi drivers marched in central Athens on Tuesday to protest at what they called an “invasion” by Uber, and attacked passing cars they thought were being used by the ride-hailing service.

The drivers say the services are taking their business. They have also accused the Greek government of holding up legislation to regulate booking apps such as Uber and the locally-developed app Beat.

“We will not co-exist with them,” said Yorgos Souitsmes, one of the protesting drivers. “It’s a multinational that wants to steal the bread of Greeks.”

Uber did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Banners held up by protesters read “Uber No Thanks.” Crowds kicked and punched or hurled coffee at least three passing cars they said were driven by Uber drivers.

SATA, a regional union representing taxi drivers, called a nine-hour strike on Tuesday against “every innovative platform robbing taxi drivers and our country”.

“For three years now we’ve been fighting a big and daily battle to counter Uber’s … arbitrary invasion of public transport,” it said in a statement.

Uber has faced regulatory and legal setbacks around the world prompted by opposition from traditional taxi services and disputes over labor rights. It has been forced to quit several countries, including Denmark and Hungary.

The Transport Ministry has not released details on the legislation but media reports suggested it plans to force app operators to sign three-year contracts with licensed taxi drivers and subject them to strict rules.

News of the plan last year angered commuters worried it would disrupt a popular service. Tens of thousands signed a petition launched by Beat in favor of ride-hailing services.

Beat, which was bought by German carmaker Daimler last year, has more than 1 million customers in Greece. Uber is not as widely used in Greece.

(By Deborah Kyvrikosaios and Alkis Konstantinidis; Writing by Karolina Tagaris; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Trump trade adviser sees business exemptions for new tariffs

WASHINGTON – A top trade adviser to U.S. President Donald Trump said on Sunday a process will be in place for businesses to get exemptions from the White House plan to place steep tariffs on steel and aluminum, offering the first indication a tariff hike could be less broad than first thought.

Peter Navarro, director of the White House National Trade Council, said countries will not be excluded from the tariffs because that would become a slippery slope, but there will be a mechanism for corporate exemptions in some cases.

“There will be an exemption procedure for particular cases where we need to have exemptions, so that business can move forward,” Navarro said on CNN’s “State of the Union” program.

U.S. President Donald Trump salutes as he and first lady Melania Trump return to the White House in Washington, U.S., from Palm Beach, Florida, March 3, 2018. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

The scenario of possible exceptions came after Trump’s surprise announcement on Thursday and subsequent aggressive business lobbying against the tariffs, an outcry from U.S. trading partners and criticism from fellow Republicans.

Trump has spoken to world leaders about the planned tariff hikes but has given no indication he would allow exemptions, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross said on Sunday.

Navarro did not elaborate on the exemption procedure and the White House did not immediately return a request for comment.

Navarro and Ross, who have advocated stronger trade policies to reduce U.S. trade imbalances, went on Sunday U.S. television news shows to try to contain the global fallout from Trump’s announcement.

The president said the United States would impose duties of 25 percent on imported steel and 10 percent on aluminum to protect domestic producers. The plan stunned U.S. trading partners, alarmed American industry leaders and roiled stock markets.

Josh Bolten, chief executive officer of the influential Business Roundtable, told “Fox News Sunday” program the tariffs would cause “huge damage” across the economy without affecting China.

A frequent target of Trump’s criticism on trade, China accounts for 2 percent of U.S. steel imports.

A number of Republicans, including congressional leaders, urged Trump to hold back on the tariffs.

At North American trade talks in Mexico City, Republican Representative Kevin Brady, the top U.S. lawmaker on trade policy, said the administration should exempt current aluminum and steel contracts to avoid business uncertainty.

“I believe there should be a quick and timely exclusion process for existing contracts, as well as for existing businesses,” he said.

Energy industry officials raised concerns about the tariffs on steel since the sector relies on imports.

“The U.S. oil and natural gas industry, in particular, relies on specialty steel for many of its projects that most U.S. steelmakers don’t supply,” American Petroleum Institute President Jack Gerard said last week.

The steel used to make large-diameter, thick-walled pipe for interstate natural gas and oil pipeline projects are not available off the shelf or from a wide variety of manufacturers, according to the Interstate Natural Gas Association of America.


Numerous world leaders and ministers have been in touch with Trump and U.S. officials including Ross, suggesting an intensive behind-the-scenes effort to change the president’s mind, the commerce secretary said.

British Prime Minister Theresa May told Trump she had “deep concern” about the expected tariffs, May’s office said on Sunday following a phone call between the two leaders. May said “multilateral action was the only way to resolve the problem of global overcapacity in all parties’ interests.”

Ross said there was no indication yet that Trump would consider exemptions for countries, but he did not rule it out.

“We’ll see. The president makes the decision,” Ross said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program.

Canada, the biggest steel supplier to the United States, is trying to secure an exemption from potential U.S. tariffs on steel and has threatened retaliation if the plan goes ahead.

Ross said the proposed tariffs represent a fraction of 1 percent of the U.S. economy so they would not have a great impact.

The commerce secretary dismissed European Union threats of retaliatory tariffs on flagship American products, including Harley Davidson motorcycles, bourbon and Levi’s jeans, calling the $3 billion in affected goods a “pretty trivial” amount.

On Saturday, Trump threatened European automakers with a tax on imports if the European Union retaliates.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu, Valerie Volcovici and Sarah N. Lynch in Washington, Lesley Wroughton in Mexico City; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)

Lawmakers question Trump ties to Panama project linked to laundering, trafficking

SAO PAULO – Two members of the U.S. House of Representatives Foreign Affairs Committee have asked the Trump Organization if it was aware of allegations that real estate agents and investors involved in the Trump Ocean Club in Panama had ties to money laundering and drug trafficking.

Democratic Representatives Norma Torres and Eliot Engel sent the letter, seen by Reuters, to the Trump Organization’s general counsel, Alan Garten, on Wednesday evening.

They asked what due diligence was done on investors and agents involved in the project, which earned President Donald Trump between $30 million and $50 million for lending his name to it, according to court records.

Garten wrote in an email on Thursday that he had not received the letter from Torres and Engel.

The Trump Ocean Club International Hotel and Tower Panama is seen between apartment buildings in Panama City, Panama February 27, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Lemos

Torres and Engel largely based the questions in their letter on the findings of a Reuters investigation into the Trump Ocean Club published in November, in conjunction with U.S. broadcaster NBC News.

“Given widely reported allegations of money laundering and drug trafficking in connection with Trump Ocean Club Panama, we believe it is imperative to understand the Trump Organization’s knowledge of and role in sales at this property,” the representatives wrote.

They asked if the Trump Organization at any time became aware that “any agents or investors involved in Trump Ocean Club were involved in money laundering or illegal narcotics trafficking,” and, if so, had they reported it to U.S. or Panamanian authorities and terminated business arrangements with any suspected individuals.

The Reuters investigation found that a Brazilian man, Alexandre Ventura Nogueira, was responsible for between one-third and one-half of advance sales for the Trump Panama project, which was completed in 2011.

Nogueira is under investigation in Brazil for international money laundering. The inquiry started in 2013 after the Finance Ministry’s financial crimes unit noticed several transfers of more than 1 million reais ($308,500) from accounts in Panama to his accounts in Brazil.

In a November interview with Reuters, Nogueira denied any wrongdoing in Brazil.

He said that he only learned after the Trump Ocean Club project was almost complete that some of his partners and investors in the project were criminals, including some with what he described as connections to the “Russian mafia.”

Nogueira, whose whereabouts are unknown, said he had not knowingly laundered any illicit money through the Trump project, although he said he had laundered cash later in other schemes for corrupt Panamanian officials.

Garten said in November: “No one at the Trump Organization, including the Trump family, has any recollection of ever meeting or speaking with this individual.”

Torres and Engel wrote in their letter that obtaining answers from the Trump Organization on the Panama project was “essential as we carry out oversight of U.S. policy towards Latin America and the Caribbean.”

They said they wanted to ensure that Trump was “fully committed to the goal of dismantling the transnational criminal organizations that are responsible for smuggling drugs into the United States.”

“If the President, in a previous role, failed to take reasonable steps to prevent the laundering of drug money, it would be of grave concern to us,” the letter read.

(Reporting by Brad Brooks; Editing by Daniel Flynn, Peter Cooney and Jonathan Oatis)