A fund created to offset legal expenses associated with the Russia investigations paid over $150,000 in 2018 to cover legal expenses incurred by Stephen Miller, Dan Scavino, and Avi Berkowitz, according to documents obtained by CREW. The fund does not disclose whose legal fees it offsets, but public financial disclosures filed by these officials reported the payments as gifts.
The Patriot Legal Expense Fund Trust, LLC (Patriot Fund) was established to help cover the legal expenses of current and former Trump administration officials, as well as members of the Trump campaign and transition team, arising from investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
Assistant to the President and Senior Advisor for Policy Stephen Miller disclosed a $40,000 gift from the Patriot Fund in the form of a “[p]ayment for legal services” in part 9 of his 2019 annual financial disclosure report. Avi Berkowitz, Deputy Assistant to the President and Advisor to Senior Advisor Jared Kushner, disclosed a similar gift from the Patriot Fund totaling $109,072.71. Assistant to the President and Director of Social Media Dan Scavino disclosed a $5,018.50 gift from the Patriot Fund.
The financial disclosure reports obtained by CREW were certified by White House ethics officials and the Office of Government Ethics (OGE).
The Patriot Fund is structured unlike any other executive branch legal expense fund that preceded the Trump administration and poses several ethics issues. CREW has objected to the blessing of the Patriot Fund by OGE in large part because the fund accepts donations from “prohibited sources.” OGE’s regulations bar executive branch employees from accepting gifts from “prohibited sources,” a term the regulations define as including, among others, any person who is seeking official action by the employee’s agency.
The charter for the Patriot Fund says that its manager, Nan Hayworth, will segregate donations from prohibited sources from other donations. Dr. Hayworth is supposed to make sure that none of the money from prohibited sources is included in any distribution to an executive branch employee.
Miller, Scavino, and Berkowitz’s financial disclosure reports do not reveal the specific individuals whose donations comprised their gifts from the Patriot Fund. Instead, they refer the reader to Internal Revenue Service filings by the Patriot Fund, which identify all donors who gave more than $200 to the fund. But their reports do not indicate which of these donors’ money funded their distributions, leaving unresolved CREW’s concerns about the Patriot Fund’s screening process and the potential for prohibited sources to give money to executive branch officials. Their disclosures conform to a model OGE has posted online for disclosing individual donors to legal expense funds, which indicates that a filer can provide a website address where the names of donors are listed. Miller, Scavino, and Berkowitz also added endnotes to their reports explaining how the public can access the Patriot Fund’s reports and find its contributors. OGE’s recommended method of filing fails to provide ethics officials or the public with information in the financial disclosure report needed to assess the filer’s compliance with the government’s gift rules.
As a result, many questions remain about the Patriot Fund, including which other Trump administration and campaign officials may have benefited from it and whether funds from prohibited sources were included in the distributions to Miller, Scavino, and Berkowitz.
The question as to whether money from prohibited sources may have funded their distributions is important because the listed donors in the Patriot Fund’s IRS filings include individuals who may well be prohibited sources for gifts to White House employees. For example, the New York Times reported that Sheldon Adelson, who gave the Patriot Fund $250,000, “has used his access to push the president to” take certain actions in the Middle East “according to people familiar with their discussions.” Likewise, ProPublica reported that President Trump raised an issue regarding Adelson’s bid to build a casino in Japan with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. This reporting suggests that Adelson may meet the definition of “prohibited source” under OGE’s regulations.
OGE needs to find out whether Patriot Fund Manager Nan Hayworth screened out donations from any prohibited sources when she distributed money to Miller, Scavino, and Berkowitz. If she did not screen out such donations, OGE’s regulations provide guidance on the proper disposition of impermissible gifts: return the money.
This post was updated on August 2, 2019 to reflect that Stephen Miller and Dan Scavino’s 2019 annual reports were certified by OGE on July 29, 2019, and then again on August 9, 2019 to reflect that OGE certified Avi Berkowitz’s 2019 annual report on August 5, 2019. All three certifications were made after this post was originally published.