WASHINGTON – As the president prepares to promote his infrastructure plan in his State of the Union speech Tuesday night, a left-leaning watchdog group is claiming the plan was illegally developed by a group of Trump’s friends and business associates with conflicts of interest and is primarily designed to benefit them.

The report, called “A Blueprint for Cronyism: President Trump’s Illegal Infrastructure Plan to Enrich His Friends,” was released by Democracy Forward and is to be the first of a series of actions under an “Infrastructure Accountability Initiative” that the group says will include future litigation over the plan.

The president’s infrastructure plan, drafts of which have been leaked during the past two weeks, “appears to award new infrastructure grants directly to private companies, empower companies to charge tolls and fees on America’s roads and bridges, cut career officials and agency experts out of project and permitting decisions and eliminate regulatory and legal safeguards that protect against corruption,” Democracy Forward said in a summary of the report.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao
The report contains an email exchange between Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao and Trump business associate Steven Roth over Sen. Chuck Schumer's attempts to get federal funding for the Gateway project. Bloomberg News

The 16-page report was released a few days after a draft of the administration’s Infrastructure Legislative Outline to streamline permitting and the environmental process for infrastructure projects was leaked. The outline pushes for major reforms of the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act, and the Endangered Species Act, among other things.

Environmental and other liberal groups responded by claiming the administration is using infrastructure to undermine key environmental laws rather than confronting the key issue for infrastructure projects, which is how to get them funded.

Democrats and several transportation experts have also opposed or been skeptical of the president’s infrastructure plan, complaining that it doesn’t propose enough federal funds for projects or present a solution for the ailing Highway Trust Fund, which is supported by federal fuels taxes and disburses federal funds for highway and transit projects to state and local governments.

In its report, Democracy Forward says, “President Trump’s infrastructure strategy would leave American communities behind, as private special interest like his friends and business associates get rich.” The plan “would favor projects designed to maximize revenue for private companies while incentivizing state and local governments to take on debt,” it says.

The group contends that an advisory Infrastructure Council, informally established by the president in early 2017 and co-chaired by real estate moguls and Trump associates Richard LeFrak and Steven Roth, met behind closed doors for months to solicit and review project proposals as well as recommend regulatory actions and help develop the plan. These discussions violated the Federal Advisory Committee Act, which requires all meetings of presidential advisory groups to be open to the public, the group said.

Richard LeFrak, chairman and CEO of family-company based in New York City that owns, develops and manages real estate, has known Trump for decades and served as an economic advisor to him during the 2016 presidential campaign, according to the report. Steven Roth is founder and chairman of Vornado Realty Trust that owns two buildings in partnership with Trump and half of an office skyscraper that was purchased in 2006 by Jared Kushner’s family, it says.

The report also mentions other Trump advisors, such as D.J. Gribbin, a special assistant to the president for infrastructure policy and former managing director at Macquarie Capital who is a major advocate of public-private partnerships.

In May, the White House received more than 500 infrastructure project requests from the governors, consultants, unions, and other advisors and Trump said publicly that the projects were going to be run through the Infrastructure Council. Trump tried to formally create the group by issuing Executive Order 13805 last July. But after he made controversial remarks about a white supremacy march in Charlottesville, Va., some council members resigned and the White House announced it would not more forward with making the council formal.

In August, there was an exchange of emails between Department of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, LeFrak, and Roth about the Gateway project, a dual-track rail tunnel under the Hudson River that would connect New Jersey and Manhattan, according to the report. President Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget proposed to eliminate the federal New Starts program, which was to finance half of the project.

Chao forwarded LeFrak and Roth a Weekly Standard article that described Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y. as “need[ing] her” to secure funding for the project. Roth responded to Chao, saying: “You are doing great. Stick to your guns.”

The report describes actions the administration has already taken that it says benefit Trump’s advisors.

White House officials did not respond to requests for comment.

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