Alejandro Mayorkas, President Obama's nominee to become deputy… (J. Scott Applewhite / Associated…)
WASHINGTON — President Obama's choice to be second in command at the Department of Homeland Security vigorously denied allegations Thursday that he helped a company run by the brother of former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton secure a special visa for foreign investors.
"I have never in my career used undue influence to influence the outcome of a case," Alejandro Mayorkas, the head of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, told a Senate panel considering his nomination.
If confirmed as deputy secretary, Mayorkas would probably temporarily replace Janet Napolitano at the agency's helm when she leaves to run the University of California system in September.
Mayorkas is being investigated by the department's inspector general over allegations that he helped Anthony Rodham's Gulf Coast Funds Management secure a visa for a Chinese investor after the application was denied twice, according to a letter sent to lawmakers by the inspector general's office.
The office told lawmakers this week that Mayorkas was being examined for allegations of conflicts of interest and misuse of his position as part of a larger inquiry opened last year into a controversial visa program for foreigners who invest in the United States.
"At this point in our investigation, we do not have any findings of criminal misconduct," the inspector general's office wrote in the letter. The investigation of Mayorkas is in a "preliminary stage," Bill Hillburg, spokesman for the inspector general, said in a statement.
The allegations are "unequivocally false," Mayorkas told Democrats on the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee. The committee's Republicans boycotted the proceedings and called for the nomination to be postponed until the investigation was complete.
"Unfortunately, neither the White House, nor DHS, nor Mr. Mayorkas himself disclosed to us the existence of an active investigation into Mr. Mayorkas, featuring allegations which, if true, may directly apply to his fitness to serve as deputy secretary and potentially acting secretary of DHS," Sen. Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, the top Republican on the committee, said in a statement.
The inspector general's office began an inquiry into the EB-5 visa program last year. The program awards green cards to foreign nationals who invest $500,000 to $1 million in U.S. companies that create American jobs. Most applications are from Chinese investors, according to congressional aides.
E-mails given to members of Congress show that Anthony Rodham asked for help from Mayorkas to expedite visa processing for Chinese investors in GreenTech Automotive, a firm co-founded by Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe. Rodham's company was lining up foreign investors in the start-up company.
Mayorkas said he met with McAuliffe, a former Democratic National Committee chairman, last year to hear his complaints about delays in the approval of visas for foreign investors. When asked if the meeting caused him to change course, Mayorkas answered: "Absolutely not."
"I do remember returning to the office and complaining about the fact that I had to hear complaints. That is all," he said. "I do not put my finger on the scale of justice."
Mayorkas added that earlier this year he recalled hearing that Gulf Coast Funds Management was still not satisfied with the outcome.
The EB-5 program has long been considered controversial and complex. Mayorkas said he had tried to bring in more economists, fraud experts and national security personnel to improve the process of awarding the visas.
Born in Havana in 1960, Mayorkas came to the U.S. with his parents before he was a year old during a wave of migration fleeing the communist takeover of Cuba. Mayorkas served as the U.S. attorney for the Central District of California from 1998 to 2001.
At the Homeland Security Department, Mayorkas played a central role in implementing Obama's program to defer the deportations of hundreds of thousands of immigrants brought to the U.S. unlawfully as children.
If confirmed as acting secretary, Mayorkas would be the first foreign-born American to lead the department since it was created in 2002.
White House Counsel Kathryn H. Ruemmler wrote Wednesday to Sen. Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.), the committee's chairman, to say that the administration was aware of the investigation when it vetted Mayorkas.
"We have no concerns about his suitability for this important position," she wrote.