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Sunday, October 24, 2021

Explained: Why the US State Department is looking for a $5,800 bottle of whisky

The whisky was donated to former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo by the government of Japan in 2019.

By: Explained Desk | New Delhi |
Updated: August 6, 2021 7:57:18 am
FILE PHOTO: Former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando, Florida, U.S. February 27, 2021. (REUTERS Photo/File)

The US State Department is looking for a $5,800 bottle of whisky that was given to former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo by the Japanese government in 2019. Now the department has launched an inquiry into the matter.

What is this about?

A notice released by the Department of State’s Office of the Chief of Protocol says that the Japanese government gave Pompeo a bottle of Japanese whisky in 2019 whose deposition is unknown. A footnote in the notice says that the department is currently looking into the matter and the inquiry regarding this is ongoing.

The New York Times first reported this investigation in a report published yesterday that says that it is not clear whether Pompeo was able to receive the gift since he was in Saudi Arabia on June 24, 2019, which is the day when the Japanese officials handed over the bottle to the State Department. The report also says that Pompeo has denied having any recollection about the bottle of whisky. No other details about the bottle were provided by the department, therefore the brand and make of the whisky remain unknown.

According to Bloomberg, in less than a decade, Japanese whisky has gone from being relatively obscure to becoming one of the most sought-after liquor in the world. “Much of that demand has been driven by U.S. and European drinkers who, whether consciously or not, are seduced by the mysticism of Japanese culture and are paying top dollar for the expertise of the country’s famed ­craftsmen,” the report says.

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What are the rules about American officials accepting gifts from foreign governments?

The Departmental Ethics Office notes that in accordance with the “Emoluments Clause of the U.S. Constitution, you may not accept anything of value from a foreign government, unless specifically authorized by Congress.” The clause says that the rule applies whether the official is on or off duty and covers all units of a foreign government, whether it is national, local, state or at the municipal level.

“It also applies to gifts from international or multinational organizations comprised of government representatives. It also may apply to gifts of honoraria, travel, or per diem from foreign universities, which are often considered as part of the foreign government. Spouses and dependent children of Federal employees are also banned from accepting gifts from foreign governments,” the Ethics office notes.

Even so, acceptance of some gifts is permitted under the Foreign Gifts and Decorations Act (FGDA). These are gifts that are less than $415 or less in value, travel expenses including cost of lodging, food, transportation for travel taking place outside of the US, educational scholarships and medical treatment.

The $415 figure is dynamic and for calendar years 2017-2019 (January 1, 2017 through December 31, 2019) the maximum value of a gift allowed to be accepted was $390. Therefore, during Pompeo’s tenure, $390 will be treated as the minimal value.

Significantly, the clause also mentions that if the value of the gift exceeds the minimal value or refusal of a gift causes embarrassment either to the US or the foreign government, then the gift may be accepted by the Department.

Broadly, under the ethics regulation a gift is defined as anything that has monetary value which a person obtains for less than the “market value”.

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