A private equity firm advised until January by a top White House adviser is pouring money into Indian companies as President Donald Trump prepares to tap that same adviser to be the next US Ambassador to India.
The White House confirmed on Wednesday that Kenneth Juster, a top deputy to National Economic Council director Gary Cohn, will be nominated to the post in the next couple weeks, though perhaps not before Indian prime minister Narendra Modi’s June 26 White House visit.
As Juster wades through the clearance process for the post, private equity firm Warburg Pincus, where Juster was a partner until January, is dramatically scaling up its investments in Indian companies, raising questions about potential financial conflicts if Juster is confirmed.
There’s no indication that Warburg’s investment decisions have anything to do with Juster’s potential nomination, and many of their recent investments have taken place since he left the firm. But the firm’s dramatic scaling up of its Indian portfolio threatens to pit Washington’s top diplomat in New Delhi against ethics rules designed to limit the revolving door between the public and private sectors—a revolving door through which Juster has passed in his moves from government to business and back into government.
According to White House financial disclosure forms, Juster was personally involved in Warburg’s work in India. He listed eight of the firm’s Indian portfolio companies in a section of the form requiring disclosure of “clients for whom you personally provided more than $5,000 in services.”
His involvement in the firm’s Indian investment activities is hardly a surprise given Juster’s past work and extensive expertise in the country, but it could post potential ethics issues. He will be barred by ethics rules implemented by President Donald Trump in January from participating in policy decisions that might affect Warburg’s bottom line—unless the president decides to exempt Juster from those rules, as Trump has done for the White House’s entire senior staff.
“Obviously, there is a question of whether [Warburg’s increased investment in India] is related to the likelihood that Kenneth Juster, a former partner, is going to be nominated as the U.S. Ambassador to India,” according to Larry Noble, who works on ethics issues for the Campaign Legal Center, a watchdog group.
“The issue for the administration is ensuring that Juster avoids any conflicts of interests when dealing with matters that involve his former firm,” said Noble, a former general counsel for the Federal Election Commission. “The nature of the potential conflicts will depend, in part, on whether he has any continuing financial ties to the Warburg Pincus.”
The White House did not respond to questions about potential ethics issues surrounding Juster’s new post. Those issues could come to the fore during confirmation hearings due to Warburg’s recent buying spree in India.
Just last week, the firm bought sizable stakes in three subsidiaries of the Tata Group, India’s largest conglomerate. The deal included $360 million for a 43% piece of Tata Technologies, the firm’s engineering and design subsidiary, and additional chunks of automotive and financial subsidiaries Tata Motors and Tata Capital.
Warburg, which has offices in Mumbai, also bought a chunk of an insurance company co-owned by India’s ICICI Bank last week, and put $300 million into a media and telecommunications buyout firm run by a former top Tata executive.
The firm’s June buying spree followed its January investment in India’s largest movie theater chain. According to its website, Warburg has invested in 18 other Indian companies since 2007. This year it embarked on an effort to steer nearly $8 billion in capital to the country over the next decade.
That has involved Warburg financially in ventures that could be affected by U.S. foreign policy decisions. Last week, for example, the Indian government announced a new maritime route from Qatar to the Nhava Sheva Port, where Warburg-backed Continental Warehousing operates shipping terminals. Qatar has struggled to import essential goods through a blockade by neighboring nations that say the country finances international terrorist groups. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, to whom Juster would report as ambassador, has urged an end to that blockade, even as President Trump amplifies criticism of the Qatari government.
Juster’s role on the NEC stoked tensions between the White House’s “nationalist” and “globalist” factions, with Juster and Cohn falling squarely in the latter category. One of the officials with whom he had reportedly clashed, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, nonetheless praised his forthcoming nomination.
“Ken Juster has a strong résumé and, while I only met him half a dozen or so times, I know of no reason why he could not serve our country well as ambassador to such an important country as India,” Ross told the Washington Post, which first reported the news of the nomination on Wednesday.
Juster’s credentials to be the administration’s top Indian diplomat are stellar, but they have also dovetailed with his subsequent work in the private sector. As a Commerce Department undersecretary in the George W. Bush administration, Juster spearheaded the U.S.-India High Technology Cooperation Group, which advanced economic cooperation in the tech sector.
He was also deeply involved in the U.S.-India Next Steps in Strategic Partnership initiative, which worked to build economic ties in the technology, nuclear, and commercial space exploration sectors.
Juster joined Warburg as a partner in 2010. The same year, he joined the board of the U.S.-India Business Council, a trade association representing more than 350 Indian and American corporations. The group maintains a heavy advocacy footprint in Washington, where it has recently reported lobbying Congress and the State Department on immigration and visa rules—key issues on the Trump administration’s agenda.
The Council describes itself as “the voice of industry” operating between the two countries. With Juster’s potential elevation, that voice may get a lot louder.