Ethics office unofficially OKs legal defense fund for White House staffers

Presidents and the American economy
Presidential policies certainly play a role in the state of the US economy, but the chief occupant of the White House often gets credit when things are good and blame when they're bad. That's especially true during the first year, when the effect of any new policy is hard to measure. Here are the key economic indicators after one year in office for Presidents Carter through Trump. (Source: CNN)

White House officials and former Trump campaign aides embroiled in the Russia investigation could soon see their legal bills covered by an outside legal fund.

Outside lawyers created a limited liability company called the Patriot Legal Expenses Fund Trust, which will raise money from donors to pay legal expenses for multiple individuals, according to emails between those attorneys and a government agency.

A handful of White House officials are already in line to receive funding, a source familiar with the deliberations told CNN.

The email exchange, which includes a draft agreement to establish the pool, was posted on the Office of Government Ethics website Thursday night. It describes the framework for the pool, which will “pay for or help defray legal expenses, which can include attorneys’ fees, court filing fees, litigation costs or other related fees and costs,” according to the document.

Attorney Robert Walker with Wiley Rein, the firm that represents the fund, declined CNN’s requests for comment on Friday.

So-called legal defense funds are typically established for the benefit of one person, according to government officials and lawyers familiar with these vehicles. The Patriot Legal Expenses Fund, however, can cover bills for multiple people, including current and former White House employees, as well as campaign officials. That feature, along with others, is already raising questions among ethics hawks and the administration’s critics.

“It’s obviously rife with potential problems. For example, how does the fund ensure that there’s no favoritism of one recipient versus another? But it’s unclear there’s anything that violates a specific ethical rule. It’s very clever,” said Marilyn Glynn, who served as the Office of Government Ethics’ General Counsel from 1997-2008, including during the time when the agency advised the Clinton administration on legal defense funds.

Anticipating the firestorm that the fund’s novel design might ignite, White House counsel’s office and the outside lawyers sought guidance from the Office of Government Ethics, which is supposed to function as independent watchdog.

In a statement, the agency said that it cannot “approve or disapprove of specific legal defense funds.”

But the agency unofficially blessed the Patriots Legal Expense Trust Fund, noting it had met legal criteria to ensure government officials will not receive funds from “prohibited sources” such as lobbyists nor will the fund accept anonymous donations.

“The terms of this fund as OGE understands them, should ensure that employees who receive distributions from the fund do not violate the standards of conduct,” the Office of Government Ethics said in its statement.

The fund’s draft agreement makes clear that it can’t cover President Donald Trump’s legal bills. It is unclear, however, whether Trump could contribute to the fund that would pay for members of his staff or former campaign aides, as he has pledged to do.

How Trump might be able to fund some of his aides’ legal bills is a question that has roiled the President’s legal team and officials in the White House counsel’s office, who are eager to avoid the appearance that Trump is attempting to influence individuals’ testimony by paying their legal bills.

A source familiar with the process said Trump is unlikely to contribute to the new fund because it will bankroll the legal bills for multiple officials, some of whom may still need to speak with the special counsels’ investigators — at least while the investigation is ongoing.

A target in an investigation — such as special counsel Robert Mueller’s — could rack up a million dollars or more in legal fees if the case proceeds to a trial. Witnesses in the investigation may spend $100,000 or more preparing to testify or in turning over records, according to several lawyers and others involved in the investigation.

So far, two defendants in the investigation have set up legal defense funds. Fired national security adviser Michael Flynn, who pleaded guilty to lying to investigators, established a legal defense fund in the fall. He faces up to a $250,000 fine and other fees and interest.

Another group, organized through lobbyist Jack Burkman, aims to collect donations to help former Trump deputy campaign chairman Rick Gates with his defense. Gates has pleaded not guilty to eight charges of money laundering and misleading the federal government in bank and foreign lobbying declarations.