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Ethics Watchdog Offers Little Guidance to White House Officials and Staff on How to Pay for Legal Expenses

Sept. 15, 2017

Ethics Watchdog Offers Little Guidance to White House Officials and Staff on How to Pay for Legal Expenses

Public Citizen Petitions Office of Government Ethics to Establish Contribution Limits and Transparency for Legal Defense Funds

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Public Citizen on Friday called on the U.S. Office of Government Ethics (OGE) to develop rules and guidance for executive branch personnel on how to properly establish and finance legal defense funds. These rules must include contribution limits, source prohibitions and disclosure requirements in order to avoid conflicts of interest.

The petition comes a day after the OGE moved to allow White House staffers to accept anonymous donations to pay their legal fees.

“Many White House officials and staff are under legal scrutiny from which they must hire costly legal teams to defend themselves,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist with Public Citizen’s Congress Watch division. “Yet there are no concrete rules or guidelines governing from whom they may raise legal defense funds or how much they may take from any single donor. It’s all left up to the discretion of the official.”

The U.S. House of Representatives and U.S. Senate ethics committees have established firm rules governing members of U.S. Congress that set limits on how much a single donor may contribute to a legal defense fund. The rules also prohibit donations from lobbyists and foreign principals and require full disclosure of the sources and expenditures of legal defense funds. The executive branch ethics agency offers no comparable rules or guidance beyond suggestions from a 1993 opinion that have largely been modified for the convenience of public officials or ignored altogether.

“In a truly outrageous move, the OGE has even given the OK for White House officials to receive large and anonymous donations from lobbyists,” said Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs for Public Citizen. “This makes it remarkably easy to buy favors from a government official desperately trying to fend off a lawsuit.”

Public Citizen has petitioned the OGE for formal rulemaking on the establishment, financing and operations of legal defense funds by executive branch personnel, asking that the agency learn and borrow from congressional regulations on legal defense funds. Such rules should include: (1) contribution limits so that no donor may attempt to buy undue influence with the official; (2) source prohibitions to avoid serious conflicts of interest; and (3) full transparency of the sources and expenditures of legal defense funds to assure the public that the funds are not being abused to curry political favor.

Read Public Citizen’s petition for rulemaking (PDF).