Top Democrat questions aid agency’s culture as nominee faces hearing

Citing a bizarre speech on diversity from one of Millennium Challenge Corporation’s leaders, a top Democrat raised concerns over the federal aid agency’s culture as the Trump administration’s nominee prepares for a hearing Tuesday afternoon.

New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, highlighted these issues in a letter dated February 23 to the acting leader of the Millennium Challenge Corporation, a small federal government aid agency established 2004.

The letter said that these concerns came up as Menendez was reviewing the nomination of Sean Cairncross to lead the organization as CEO.

“As part of this review process, it has come to my attention that a current member of Millennium Challenge Corporation’s senior political leadership has made a number of concerning statements and remarks to staff that call into question the MCC’s commitment to an open and diverse workplace and an acceptable code of conduct,” Menendez wrote.

Menendez’s letter singles out Robert Blau, the organization’s vice president of compact operations, for statements at a company town hall last June. Blau made “a number of troubling comments that raise questions about his approach to and treatment of employees based on their political leanings, sexual orientation, and national origin,” Menendez wrote.

According to an audio copy of the speech obtained by Foreign Policy, Blau reportedly told his co-workers that he is “not someone who celebrates diversity or engineers it. To me,” he said, “diversity just happens.”

“My first wife was an African immigrant,” he said, according to Foreign Policy. “So, actually, on an anthropologic level, I’m like President Obama’s mother. In the sense that my spouse was an African immigrant and my sons are mixed race, like President Obama and his siblings. And my stepmother, my father’s second wife, is from Colombia. My sister-in-law is also from Colombia. They’re not related, it’s a coincidence. I despise one and love the other one, so you can’t generalize about Colombians.”

He also said, presumably to a Millennium Challenge Corporation employee, according to the report: “Your demographic is Asian. Are Asians all in one box?” he asked. “The big three in her area is Koreans, Japanese and Chinese. Would they want to be in the same box? I don’t think so.”

Menendez said he was “deeply troubled” by Blau’s comments and added that he plans to ask Cairncross for his “commitment to address any workplace issues as part of his nomination process.”

Millennium Challenge Corporation responded with a statement, saying that it is “proud of its long track record of fostering a positive workplace culture that prioritizes respect, openness, and inclusion.” The agency is “committed to these principles now and moving forward,” press secretary Laura Allen said in a statement.

“The comments cited in the letter from Senator Menendez do not reflect MCC’s values, or the agency’s respect for diversity and inclusion,” Allen said. “MCC is working to respond to the letter from Senator Menendez.”