According to a recent press report, the Patriot Legal Expense Fund has begun to reimburse legal costs for the President Trump’s allies who are involved investigations into Russian election interference. The fund has declined to identify recipients, who may be government employees. With limited disclosure, it is difficult to ascertain whether the fund is in compliance with Office of Government Ethics (OGE) rules.
CREW filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request with OGE for specific documents that contain ethics advice that OGE gave the White House about the fund, including an email from Acting Director David Apol to Stefan Passantino dated October 6, 2017. The requested documents will reveal whether or not the Republican National Committee (RNC) is a “prohibited source” for purposes of the executive branch gift rules.
Executive branch gift rules prohibit federal employees from accepting gifts, which include items “given because of an employee’s official position” or given “by a prohibited source.” If the RNC is a prohibited source, OGE gift rules regulate whether or not the RNC can give cash gifts to White House appointees to cover their legal expenses. If the RNC is not a prohibited source, gift rules don’t apply at all.
The identities of the people benefiting from the fund have not been disclosed and may include current members of the administration. “Members” of the fund also have not been disclosed, although the fund is reportedly “deeply intertwined with the Trump campaign.”
The requested documents will shed light on whether former Trump campaign officials who are now government employees and are benefiting from the Patriot Legal Expense Fund are complying with the OGE gift rules. Beyond the implications for this specific legal defense fund, it is in the public interest for ethics rules to be made clear about who can donate to legal defense funds and who can benefit from them.