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White House Staffers May Get Legal Fund For Russia Probe — With Anonymous Donors?

White House staffers may need assistance from a legal defense fund if special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe pulls them in for questioning.
Brendan Smialowski
AFP/Getty Images
White House staffers may need assistance from a legal defense fund if special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe pulls them in for questioning.

The federal ethics agency may be opening the door for anonymous donors to pay legal fees for White House staffers.

It could happen just as special counsel Robert Mueller draws closer to the White House in his investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election and possible collusion with Trump campaign.

Several conservative and pro-Trump groups are said to be considering creating such funds to help White House staffers who may be interviewed by investigators, but who can't afford Washington's high-priced ethics lawyers.

If anonymous donors were allowed, a legal defense fund could become a conduit for check-writers seeking to show their loyalty to President Trump, or to gain influence in the White House, but privately.

The new loophole may lie in the way the Office of Government Ethics, or OGE, treats an obscure legal opinion from 25 years ago. The opinion allowed anonymous contributions in the case of a particular federal employee. OGE issued the opinion early in the Clinton administration — the last time White House staffers needed a legal defense fund.

Since then, however, the opinion has been in limbo. OGE has long considered it flawed and obsolete.

Former agency director Walter Shaub Jr. last year posted a notice on the agency's website, warning federal officials not to rely on it. But now, that warning has been replaced by a notice stating that any decision depends on the specific facts of each case, and officials should consult with OGE first.

Shaub, who resigned in July and is now an outspoken critic of the Trump administration, said changing the warning effectively resurrected the flawed opinion, making anonymous contributions possible for a future legal defense fund.

Administration officials said that's wrong.

"OGE policy on anonymous contributions has not changed," spokeswoman Elizabeth Horton told NPR. And at the White House, a spokeswoman said the White House is not pushing for approval of anonymous donors.

Shaub told NPR, "It's a good outcome if they stick with that position." But he added, "The public will have no way of validating that this is the advice they're giving their appointees."

Donors to a legal fund, anonymous or known, would run into a federal ethics law that bars gifts from "prohibited sources" — a group that includes anyone seeking official action or trying to do business with the White House.

But the 1993 legal opinion, skimpy as it is, is OGE's latest guidance on legal defense funds for executive branch employees. (The House and Senate have their own ethics rules.)

The watchdog group Public Citizen on Friday requested that the agency develop regulations for legal defense funds. The proposalincludes a $5,000 annual limit for each donor; a ban on money from corporations, unions and lobbyists; and quarterly disclosure reports.

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Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.