Better Late Than Never: Following a Public Citizen Petition, the Office of Government Ethics Will Regulate Executive Branch Legal Defense Funds

April 12, 2019

Better Late Than Never: Following a Public Citizen Petition, the Office of Government Ethics Will Regulate Executive Branch Legal Defense Funds

Statement of Craig Holman, Government Affairs Lobbyist, Public Citizen’s Congress Watch Division

Note: Public Citizen on Sept. 15, 2017, petitioned the U.S. Office of Government Ethics (OGE) to promulgate rules and procedures for setting up and running legal defense funds by executive branch officials. OGE Director Emory Rounds announced on Monday that the agency will pursue rulemaking on legal defense funds, including addressing the issues raised by Public Citizen, ranging from disclosure requirements to contribution limits and source prohibitions. Comments from the public are due June 14.

Public Citizen applauds the recent announcement for rulemaking, even if it should have been done a while ago. Better late than never.

Legal defense funds for executive branch officials used to be not much of a problem, because very few were ever set up by executive branch officials. But as Public Citizen warned the Office of Government Ethics (OGE), with the tidal wave of ethics and legal scandals washing over the Trump administration, legal defense funds will be created in nearly every agency.

Congress, on the other hand, has long had rules in place for how lawmakers may pay for legal expenses associated with ethics complaints and other legal issues associated with public office. Congress mandates full disclosure of congressional legal defense funds, sets contribution limits to these funds and even restricts lobbyists and foreign principals from donating to these funds.

But no such rules exist for the executive branch. A dozen such funds may be established and in full swing, but without adequate disclosure, no one really knows how many legal defense funds have been created, who is donating to the funds and how the money is being spent. The potential for donors buying favors with officials is enormous in this stealth arena.

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