Biden son-in-law faces conflict of interest concerns following coronavirus response investments
(CNN) -- The White House has pledged to bar President Joe Biden's family from using the office for personal gain, but questions are being raised by good governance groups and news outlets about whether an investment firm co-founded by Biden's son-in-law could present a new set of ethical challenges for the administration.
On the campaign and now, at the White House, Biden has faced questions about whether his son, Hunter, or his brother, Frank, could pose conflicts of interest over their business dealings.
But now, Biden's son-in-law, Dr. Howard Krein, is facing scrutiny.
Krein, who married Ashley Biden in 2012, is a head and neck surgeon and the chief medical officer of health care venture capital firm StartUp Health.
Throughout the years, Krein has advised Biden on a variety of health care issues. His firm called him an adviser to the then-vice president's cancer moonshot initiative, which was started in the wake of Beau Biden's death due to brain cancer. Krein's advisement continued when Biden left public office, serving on the Biden Cancer Initiative's board of directors from 2017 to 2019, according to his firm's biography. And according to multiple news outlets, Krein was among those advising Biden's presidential campaign on its health care policies during the coronavirus pandemic.
ABC News reported Tuesday that the CEO of the boutique tech firm Yosi Health sought the assistance of Krein and StartUp Health -- one of the company's early investors -- asking StartUp Health to introduce their software, aimed at streamlining coronavirus vaccine efforts, to government health officials. Yosi Health CEO Hari Prasad told ABC the goal of working with StartUp Health was "to leverage their relationships and work with state and federal agencies." StartUp Health has also invested in dozens of other health care companies involved in coronavirus pandemic response, according to its website.
The firm has also highlighted Krein's ties to Biden since Inauguration Day.
A February 2021 newsletter email the firm says reaches "a targeted audience of more than 45,000 health industry decisionmakers" linked back to a 2016 blog post written by Krein about moonshot initiatives. The blog post is topped with an image of Krein speaking at podium with the vice presidential seal as Biden stands to the side and leads with Biden's comments about how his cancer moonshot initiative is "a matter of life and death."
"The potential conflicts posed by this situation are orders of magnitude less severe than the pervasive corruption of the Trump administration, but the potential problems are real. President Biden and his administration should take proactive measures to prevent foreseeable problems going forward," Robert Weissman, president of the liberal watchdog group Public Citizen, told CNN. He added that Biden "should not engage in conversations with Krein about health policy, nor should others in the Biden administration."
Jennifer Hankin, chief of staff at StartUp Health, said Krien's role at the company is "only to provide a clinician's perspective into our mission to transform health. Dr. Krein does not make investment decisions at StartUp Health nor does he advise or assist companies on obtaining government contracts."
A White House official told CNN last week that there is currently a process in place that involves the White House Counsel's Office and family representatives to address issues as they may arise about any questions of potential conflicts of interest.
And responding directly to stories about Krein, White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters Tuesday: "The President has made clear that there will be an absolute wall between him and any businesses connected with his family members, and ... no family member is going to have an office in the White House or be involved in any government policymaking. That applies to his son-in-law and applies to every single member of his family."
"There's not a single member of the family who is employed at the White House, will have an office in the White House or will benefit financially," she added.
The conflict of interest questions raised about Biden's family follow a presidency known widely for apparent self-dealing and nepotism.
Then-President Donald Trump installed his daughter, Ivanka, and his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, into senior White House roles. Throughout his years in office, Trump faced scrutiny for frequently visiting his own properties during his off time, proposing his own property for a global summit and his indifference toward the potential conflict of interest involved with foreign government officials spending at his hotels.
Josh Kushner, Jared Kushner's brother, faced scrutiny for the potential conflicts posed by his firm, Thrive Capital, and the company it backed: Oscar Health. The Atlantic reported that last year, as Jared Kushner was leading what some outlets dubbed a "shadow coronavirus task force," that Oscar Health developed a website at the government's request to help Americans find coronavirus testing sites. The site was later scrapped.
Scott Amey, general counsel at the Project On Government Oversight, told CNN that the Trump administration "set the bar very low, allowing family and cozy associates to obtain federal jobs and lucrative contracts, and Biden isn't coming into the White House with a clean slate."
In order for the White House to successfully shutdown Biden family and associates advertising closeness to the Oval Office, the President, senior officials and agencies will need to "build appropriate firewalls, prevent special access, and not share any sensitive government information with family and friends," Amey said.
Biden pledged in an interview with People Magazine last week that the Biden White House is "going to run this like the Obama-Biden administration."
"No one in our family and extended family is going to be involved in any government undertaking or foreign policy," he continued.
But since Biden's days in the Obama White House, he's acted favorably toward Krein's firm and, conversely, Krein's firm has sought to highlight its connections to Biden.
Krein told the Philadelphia Business Journal in 2015 that Biden helped bring him and his business partners, including his brother Steven Krein, into the Oval Office for a meeting with President Barack Obama.
"I happened to be talking to my father-in-law that day and I mentioned Steve and Unity were down there," Krein said at the time. "(Biden) knew about StartUp Health and was a big fan of it. He asked for Steve's number and said, 'I have to get them up here to talk with Barack.' The Secret Service came and got Steve and Unity and brought them to the Oval Office."
Days after Obama announced a cancer moonshot initiative during his State of the Union address, Krein -- separated only by Dr. Francis Collins, the head of the National Institutes of Health -- sat near the vice president for a roundtable kicking off the program. In 2016, he accompanied the vice president to the World Economic Forum in Switzerland and to meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican to discuss the moonshot initiative.
And in his final days in the Obama White House, Biden spoke from behind the vice presidential seal to deliver remarks at the firm's annual StartUp Health Festival. Biden also spoke at the firm's festival after he left the Obama administration.
StartUp Health has also developed its own moonshot initiatives, and at times, has tied the firm's efforts directly to Biden.
In an email newsletter sent after Biden's remarks at Davos in 2016, StartUp Health solicited pitches from entrepreneurs related to cancer moonshot work.
"This week Vice President Biden delivered the keynote address in Davos during the World Economic Forum and discussed one of the most important missions of our time -- curing cancer -- and challenged experts to share data," the company's newsletter read. "StartUp Health is honored to support this moonshot (our Chief Medical Officer Dr. Howard Krein is an advisor to the White House on this initiative and currently in Davos as well), and we are working to organize an army of entrepreneurs who can help. If you're a startup focusing on solutions that can help end cancer as we know it, we'd like to meet you; tell us about what you are working on now."
StartUpHealth has sought to highlight Krein's familial ties to Biden over the years.
A now-removed website post from 2013 on StartUpHealth.com reads: "StartUp Health CMO Dr. Howard Krein Tours Asia with VP Biden."
One image on the post, obtained through the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine, shows then second lady Jill Biden with Krein and Ashley Biden posing with a group in India. Another image shows the second couple with Ashley and Krein in Singapore.
Another image, shared by the company's Twitter account in April 2016, shows Krein exiting what appears to be Air Force Two, flanked by two military officers.
The caption reads: ".@startuphealth Chief Medical Officer @KreinMD on the road supporting @VP Biden's Cancer Moonshot #endcancer".
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