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House Dems sound alarm over White House legal defense fund

House Dems sound alarm over White House legal defense fund
© Moriah Ratner

Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee are ringing alarm bells about a legal defense fund that was set up for the White House and Trump campaign staffers being investigated by special counsel Robert MuellerRobert (Bob) MuellerCNN's Toobin warns McCabe is in 'perilous condition' with emboldened Trump CNN anchor rips Trump over Stone while evoking Clinton-Lynch tarmac meeting The Hill's 12:30 Report: New Hampshire fallout MORE.

Called the Patriot Legal Expense Fund Trust, LLC, the organization is a blanket account that accepts donations — and doles out funds — to help defray the legal costs associated with the Russia probes in the Justice Department and in Congress. 

Aides in the White House, in addition to those involved in the presidential transition and campaign, are eligible to receive money. Neither the president nor any of his family members has access to the fund.

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Democratic lawmakers, led by Rep. Elijah CummingsElijah Eugene CummingsVoters elected a record number of Black women to Congress this year — none were Republican Democrats were united on top issues this Congress — but will it hold? 'Kamala' and 'Kobe' surge in popularity among baby names MORE (Md.), the top Democrat on the Oversight panel, are raising concerns about the lack of overall clarity of the fund’s requirements.

Specifically, they are asserting that there is a lack of transparency and loopholes that could allow for mismanagement and abuse.

There is no disclosure, for example, of who receives money from the Patriot Legal Expense Fund Trust. More than 20 White House aides have given interviews with Mueller’s team, as part of the Russia probe. At least 17 people who worked on the Trump campaign have also spoken with the special counsel.

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The legal defense fund has been set up differently than ones in the past, including during the Clinton administration, wherein an account was set up for a specific individual. The Patriot Legal Expense Fund Trust, by contrast, is a blanket account covering a swath of people, with no disclosure of who is given money or how much. 

The lawmakers are requesting documents from the Office of Government Ethics (OGE), an independent government agency, including communications between OGE and the White House and with Wiley Rein, the law firm that set up the fund. 

“The structure of the Fund appears to allow secret donations to these individuals, and it raises serious concerns about whether it complies with ethics, tax, and elections laws as well as OGE guidance,” said the Democrats' letter, which was sent to Acting OGE Director David Apol on Monday. “A draft agreement released by your office appears to permit lobbyists and other individuals seeking official action from the Trump Administration to donate money to the Fund. 

Although registered lobbyists, those representing foreign governments and anyone with business before the government are prohibited from contributing to the fund, Democrats point out that the outline for how the fund will operate does not “include a prohibition of donors giving money to the Fund on behalf of undisclosed donors."

There’s a carve-out, however, for those with business before about 20 independent government agencies, such as the Federal Communications Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

According to the Democrats, that means a White House staffer that deals with those agencies could still take money from the fund that has been donated by someone being investigated, or appearing before, those agencies.

Within the Patriot Legal Expense Fund Trust, there are also two accounts: those for executive branch aides and those who worked on the campaign or are no longer employed by the government.

The ban on contributions from prohibited individuals, such as lobbyists, does not apply to the nongovernmental recipients.

“This is a shell game,” wrote former OGE Director Walter ShaubWalter Michael ShaubEthics experts ask Senate to investigate Graham's probe of mail-in voting Interior 'propaganda' video and tweets may violate ethics laws, experts say Louisiana House candidate fundraises off opponent's tweet about wife's 'premonition' dream MORE in a Los Angeles Times op-ed. “For legal purposes, any bad money taints the whole fund because money is fungible: Every dollar the fund accepts from a questionable source and pays to a nongovernmental beneficiary frees up a dollar for those who do work for the government.”

“All the book-cooking in the world can’t remove the taint,” continues the op-ed, which was cited by the Democrats in their letters.

The White House and Apol at OGE did not respond to a request for comment. Wiley Rein did not comment.

The outline for the fund, created at the end of January, does not say a donor is prohibited from talking — or writing — to a recipient about a donation that the contribution was made because of the person's official position, which has been another point of contention for Democrats.