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Mitt Romney's Family Trusts Continued To Buy Stocks That Clashed With Divestment Pledge Until 2010

By STEPHEN BRAUN 02/ 2/12 02:08 PM ET AP

Mitt Romney
Mitt Romney (AP)

WASHINGTON — Presidential candidate Mitt Romney promised in 2007 he would shed any investments that conflicted with Republican positions on hot-button domestic and foreign policy issues. But Romney's family trusts kept some of those holdings and repeatedly bought new ones until 2010, when they were finally sold off for more than $3 million, according to a detailed review of Romney's financial records by The Associated Press.

Recently disclosed tax returns for three family trust funds for Romney, his wife, Ann, and their adult children show scores of trades in companies whose business operations are inconsistent with Republican Party stances that Romney favors on Iran, China, stem cell research, abortion and other issues.

A Romney campaign spokeswoman, Andrea Saul, said the former Massachusetts governor has no control over the investments made by his blind trust, but the trustee has tried to manage the trades "in a manner consistent with Gov. Romney's publicly expressed positions."

The continual trading between 2006 and 2010 raises questions about why the investments continued for three years, even after Romney said in 2007 that the trust would sell off any conflicted holdings. Those trades came during a period when Romney has sought to convince voters of his conservative Republican values. The trades also raise questions about whether any of the transactions were vetted for possible conflicts or political perception before they were made.

"Financially, these would seem to be completely legitimate investments," said Thomas B. Cooke, a professor of business law at Georgetown University and former president of the National Society of Tax Professionals. "But for someone running for president, there's also a smell test."

Romney's spokeswoman would not respond to questions about the timing or vetting of his investments in his blind trust. She said, however, that the lawyer running the trust occasionally makes adjustments in holdings with Romney's positions in mind.

Romney has kept many of his investments in a trust he describes as blind since he entered the Massachusetts governor's race in 2002. The trust is designed to eliminate conflicts of interest by preventing Romney from knowing about trades made on his behalf and from making specific financial decisions. A Boston attorney who runs the trust oversees Romney's far-flung holdings in stocks, mutual funds and securities.

Romney can set the general direction of his finances, Cooke and other tax experts said. Romney made that clear in August 2007, as he tried to quell a growing furor about his ownership of some stocks that clashed with Republican positions on Iran, China and other issues.

"The trustee of the blind trust has said publicly that he will endeavor to make my investments conform to my positions, and I have confidence that he will do that well," Romney said in 2007. The lawyer heading Romney's trust, R. Bradford Malt, had said earlier in 2007 that he was trying to eliminate conflicts between Romney's holdings and his policy positions.

In some cases, though, it took more than three years for Romney's trust to sell off stocks in companies whose operations appeared to be problematic for him. The AP review of Romney's capital gains financial statements indicate that he lost about $70,000 on the trades.

In 2007, Romney held between $100,000 and $250,000 worth of shares in Novo Nordisk, a Danish pharmaceutical company that engages in limited use of stem cells for research. But it was not until October 2010, on the eve of his second White House run, that Romney's trust sold off the last 27 shares of Novo Nordisk stock – among 90 shares worth $7,700 that Romney's trust sold that year.

Romney supported stem cell research during his 2002 race for governor but changed his mind before the 2007 presidential race, saying the turnabout led him to oppose abortion. Now, like many social conservatives and his Republican campaign rivals, Romney opposes any use of human embryonic stem cells for research into diseases and other medical issues because the work could destroy viable human embryos.

Romney's trust also waited until 2010 to sell more than 900 shares – worth nearly $50,000 – that it held since 2006 in Teva Pharmaceutical, an Israeli company that engages in stem cell research. Teva also manufactures "Plan B One-Step," the emergency contraceptive known as the "morning-after pill," which is opposed by anti-abortion groups.

In 2005, as Massachusetts governor, Romney vetoed an attempt by the state legislature to require hospitals to provide morning-after pills to rape victims and make them available to women and teenaged girls without a prescription. Romney said at the time he opposed the contraceptive's distribution because the pill would not only prevent conception but "would also terminate life after conception." His veto was overruled.

The Obama administration recently drew criticism from pro-abortion rights advocates by allowing the Teva contraceptive to be sold over the counter, but not to girls younger than age 17, who would still require a prescription.

As late as 2009, the Romney trusts bought 600 new shares in Fresenius Medical Care, a German firm that also did stem cell work. The trust sold the Fresenius holdings, worth more than $30,000, in 2010.

The head of the Susan B. Anthony List, a political committee that supports anti-abortion candidates, said she was concerned about Romney's investments in firms whose work is opposed by social conservatives.

"Embryonic stem cell research is the issue that was the catalyst for the governor's pro-life conversion," said Marjorie Dannenfelser, the committee's president. "He should explain what appears to be a lack of follow-through in coming to terms with an issue about which he expresses great passion."

Romney's tax returns, which he released under pressure on Jan. 24, also described numerous recent stock trades in companies tied to the Chinese government or to its censorship and crackdown on free speech. As recently as October 2009, Romney's trusts were buying stock in companies like China Northshore Oil and China Merchants Holdings. More than 130 shares of the oil company were sold in late January 2010 for $19,000, along with 630 shares of China Merchants worth $21,000. The Chinese government has long incurred criticism for its tight control of the country's media and internet and for its suppression of dissent.

Shares of other Chinese assets that Romney's trust bought and sold in 2010 included the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, China Life Insurance and New Oriental Education, a company sued in 2003 by a U.S. firm for copyright infringement.

The director of an international organization advocating human rights in China said Romney's personal investments were as important as his political statements in trying to gauge the depth of his support for change inside China.

A presidential candidate "is accountable to the public for his full record, including financial investments and the potential human rights impact of the companies he has invested in," said Sharon Hom, executive director of Human Rights in China.

Some of the largest stock trades made by the Romney trust involved companies that have operated in Iran. Romney has urged toughened sanctions and military steps against Iran and has called for strategic divestment of firms that do business there. In 2007, his trustee said he had sold off Romney investments in French and Italian energy companies with business ties to Iran.

But between mid-2009 and mid-2010, the Romney trusts made large investments in securities from BNP Paribas, a French bank with long-standing operations in Iran. The bank halted new business in Iran in 2007 but is still trying to terminate outstanding loans there. In all, Romney's family trusts bought more than 2.6 million shares, which were all sold in late 2010 for about $2.5 million.

Romney's trust for his grown children also bought and sold shares in China North Oil, recently named by the Congressional Research Service as a likely violator of the Iran Sanctions Act, and in Intesa Sanpaolo, an Italian bank that has been under investigation by U.S. authorities for handling of Iranian funds. There were also trades in stock of Gazprom, Schlumberger, Komatsu and Unilever – all firms that have had business in or with Iran.

Many of those companies are included among an extensive list compiled by United Against Nuclear Iran, a bipartisan group urging pressure on firms with business in Iran. A spokesman for the group, Nathan Carleton, declined to comment on Romney's holdings. But Carleton noted that the group's list – it named several of the firms the Romney trusts bought stock in – "is available for anyone to investigate."

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Filed by Jade Walker  |