Legal Defense Funds For Trump Allies Multiply
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
President Trump's former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, is expected back in federal court today, facing a charge of witness tampering. Manafort has other serious charges looming. So as legal charges mount, he has set up a legal defense fund. NPR's Peter Overby has more.
PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: There are more legal defense funds in the Trump era than in any past presidency. The beneficiaries - Manafort, his deputy Rick Gates, former national security adviser Michael Flynn; Trump campaign aide Michael Caputo has a GoFundMe page. Political strategist Roger Stone has two GoFundMe pages. And EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt now has a legal fund. What's missing so far? Disclosure. Craig Holman with the liberal watchdog Public Citizen said that only the GoFundMe pages have any transparency. For the others...
CRAIG HOLMAN: We don't know if they've been receiving money. We don't know how much. We don't know what kind of rules they're going by. And there just hasn't been any kind of disclosure yet.
OVERBY: That's because the rules for legal funds are all over the map. Congress has its rules. The Office of Government Ethics has other rules for the executive branch. The Internal Revenue Service is involved, too, since contributions can count as gifts. The Patriot Legal Defense (ph) Fund Trust, LLC is a pro-Trump legal fund with anonymous backing. It's intended to help pay legal bills for staffers from the Trump campaign, the transition and the White House. The fund's manager is former Congresswoman Nan Hayworth. Here she is in a promo video.
(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)
NAN HAYWORTH: Your support of the Patriot Fund will keep faith with the people who share President Trump's commitment to make America great again. Thank you.
OVERBY: The Patriot Fund is pooling money from many donors to be doled out to needy staffers. The fund said money from, say, an energy company won't go to a staffer handling energy policy. The arrangement got an informal thumbs-up from the Office of Government Ethics. Holman at Public Citizen said that ethically it doesn't really work.
HOLMAN: It basically does away with the concept of the gift rules when it comes to prohibited sources. The money is fungible.
OVERBY: And legal ethics professor Kathleen Clark raised a broader issue, whether the Patriot Fund could exert influence over the staffers it helps. She was speaking via Skype.
KATHLEEN CLARK: The concern is whether the prospect of getting legal expenses paid for would influence the kind of testimony or cooperation that a witness would provide.
OVERBY: But perhaps the murkiest of the legal funds is for Scott Pruitt, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and the focus of a dozen ethics investigations. He's hired an attorney. At a hearing, Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen of Maryland asked Pruitt if he had a legal defense fund.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CHRIS VAN HOLLEN: Is that true?
SCOTT PRUITT: I understand that that's being set up, yes.
VAN HOLLEN: OK. So you're in the process of setting that up.
PRUITT: It's been set up.
VAN HOLLEN: OK.
OVERBY: Van Hollen asked if the fund will disclose its donors.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
PRUITT: They will be published, yes, pursuant to the requirements of disclosures, yes.
VAN HOLLEN: Will you commit today to not accept any donations from lobbyists or corporations that have business before the EPA?
PRUITT: Absolutely, yeah.
OVERBY: So far, there's no public trace of Pruitt's fund or the donors who might be giving to it.
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.