A secretive U.S. government agency has cleared the way for a giant Chinese insurance firm to buy New York’s fabled Waldorf Astoria after a national security review that likely imposed conditions on the purchase.
Anbang Insurance Group Co. in Beijing announced the blockbuster deal. Hilton Worldwide, which sold the iconic hotel for $1.95 billion, confirmed its approval but declined to comment. The sale is expected to close on March 31.
“At this point, Anbang Insurance Group’s acquisition of the Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York has formally completed all the relevant procedures,” the Chinese conglomerate said in a statement.
The deal’s approval represents a precedent-setting action by the Committee for Foreign Investment in the United States as it moves to vet major real estate transactions for national security implications.
In the past, the focus of the panel known by its acronym CFIUS has been on protecting foreigners’ access to sensitive data, classified information and high-tech equipment through purchases of American firms, many of which were government contractors.
The panel took up the Waldorf Astoria sale because the hotel serves as the home-away-from-home for presidents visiting New York and provides a residence for the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, currently Samantha Power. Foreign dignitaries and celebrities also stay at the Art Deco landmark.
Christopher Brewster, a Washington lawyer with Stroock & Stroock and Lavan who represents Chinese and other foreign businesses seeking to buy American companies, said CFIUS all but certainly would have required key mitigation measures in order to sanction the Waldorf Astoria deal.
“There would need to be certain protections put in place to ensure the integrity of the telecommunications systems used by the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and to ensure that there is adequate physical security,” Brewster told McClatchy on Tuesday.
“There could very well be restrictions on access to the hotel by the foreign owners, restrictions on the staffing of certain positions and other management controls,” Brewster said.
It is even possible, Brewster said, that CFIUS required day-to-day management of the hotel to be limited to American citizens, perhaps under the oversight of a top boss vetted by the secretive agency.
“The idea that CFIUS would clear this transaction and then just walk away from it seems to me far-fetched,” Brewster said. “I have to believe that they required some kind of protections to be put in place.”
The original sales agreement granted Hilton management rights at the Waldorf Astoria for 100 years.
After controversial purchases of American properties in the 1970s by Japanese and Arab firms, President Gerald Ford established CFIUS in 1976 via executive order, and Congress later codified it into law.
The committee, whose work is classified, does not comment on its cases. It is chaired by the Treasury secretary, who is joined by the secretaries of Homeland Security, Commerce, Defense, State and Energy, along with the Attorney General. The U.S. trade representative and the head of the Office of Science and Technology Policy also belong.
As China in recent years has surged to the front of countries with foreign firms buying American companies, CFIUS has focused increased attention to some of its acquisitions.
After a lengthy review, CFIUS in September 2013 approved the purchase of Smithfield Foods Inc., the world’s largest pork producer, to Hong Kong-based Shuanghui International Holdings.
“A lot of people were laughing at the idea of CFIUS reviewing pig farms,” Brewster said Tuesday. “But the food supply has been recognized as part of the critical infrastructure of the United States. Smithfield plays a major role in the U.S. food sector, feeding our troops and supplying commissaries.”
In a more contentious case, CFIUS in 2012 denied the bid by Chinese-owned Ralls Corp. to buy a group of wind farms in Oregon, saying they were too close to a major U.S. naval base.
After President Barack Obama rejected Ralls’ appeal of the decision, the Chinese firm sued him and CFIUS. A federal court last year ruled that Ralls’ constitutional due process rights had been violated and ordered the U.S. government to provide the company hundreds of previously concealed documents supporting its denial of the deal.
The 47-story Waldorf was the world’s biggest hotel when built in 1931 at its current location on New York’s Park Avenue between East 49th and East 50th Streets, about 10 blocks from the Grand Central train station.
An underground train transports presidents and other dignitaries from Grand Central to the Waldorf, carrying Secret Service limousines and other security vehicles.
Every White House occupant since Herbert Hoover has stayed in the hotel’s Presidential Suite on the 35th floor, with each U.S. leader leaving a gift.
Frank Sinatra, Cole Porter, Grace Kelly and Gen. Douglas MacArthur are among the many celebrities who’ve lived in the Waldorf’s palatial rooms and apartments, which feature around-the-clock food delivery and maid service.
Aaron Radelet, Hilton’s vice president for corporate communications, told McClatchy in October, when the Anbang purchase was first announced, that the iconic property would “undergo a major renovation” as part of the deal.
As China has quietly increased its investment in the United States, Beijing and Washington have engaged in more public political spats around accusations of spying and computer hacking.
In its most recent annual report to Congress, CFIUS disclosed that in 2012, for the first time, it had done more national security reviews of transactions involving China than of those involving any other country.