Democrats on the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee raised concerns Monday about the transparency of a legal-defense fund to help defray the costs faced by aides to President Trump who have been drawn into the various Russia investigations. They requested that the Office of Government Ethics produce records that would open up the trust’s operations.
In a letter sent to OGE Director David Apol on Monday, Democratic lawmakers requested a slew of documents that would show how the fund was established, which concerns were raised during the planning process, and how and whether those issues were resolved. They requested that the office provide the documents by April 12 and that a representative from OGE provide a briefing to the committee by April 13.
“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,” lawmakers wrote, echoing concerns various ethics experts raised after the draft agreement for the trust was made public.
The Patriot Legal Expense Fund Trust was set up in late February as a political committee to help defray the legal costs of “eligible persons” involved in the investigations of Russian interference in the 2016 presidential campaign.
OGE released a draft agreement for the trust in January, but the trust’s official filings with the Internal Revenue Service and the Delaware secretary of state offered little insight as to how it will vet donors and provide transparency about the contributors who finance the effort.
Lawmakers noted that those documents showed that the trust “was reviewed by your office in just 31 minutes. It is unclear whether OGE reviewed previous versions and if so, why those versions were not released.”
The trust plans to allow both individuals and “entities” to make unlimited donations that will be pooled to defray costs for multiple recipients, according to paperwork filed in January with OGE. The trust’s manager has broad authority to decide who gets reimbursed and how much, filings show.
Those who could be eligible to receive money through the fund include employees, consultants or volunteers in the Trump campaign, transition and administration who have been involved in the investigations, according to a statement from a representative of the trust in late February.
In Monday’s letter, lawmakers demanded to know whether OGE or others raised any concerns about how to handle donations from prohibited sources and how the trust will ensure that payments will not be based on whether an individual’s testimony in the investigation is favorable to Trump or the administration.
They also outlined ways the trust differs from OGE’s suggested template, including by not having a termination deadline.
Among the documents lawmakers requested were communications between OGE and lawyers from the Washington-based law firm Wiley Rein, which established the fund, and OGE’s communications with members of the Trump campaign and the White House about the trust.