Government ethics office says it will stick with ban on anonymous gifts
Changes to a 1993 guidance on donations to legal defense funds for government employees raised concerns that longstanding internal policy would be reversed.09/15/2017 03:28 PM EDT
The head of the U.S. Office of Government Ethics said on Friday that the agency is sticking with its long-standing stance prohibiting anonymous donations to White House legal defense funds, despite recently putting forward language that appeared to undercut that position.
OGE has been under fire this week in the wake of a POLITICO report detailing a small but potentially critical change to the agency’s official guidance document that the OGE’s recently departed director said could give a green light to President Donald Trump’s aides to accept anonymous donations to pay their attorney bills.
“OGE has not changed its policy on anonymous donations,” Apol said.
Apol said that he’s been providing sample legal language to organizers of the Trump legal defense funds, though he declined to name the individuals inquiring about setting up the trusts.
At issue is a 1993 advisory opinion that allowed for secret contributions to defense funds from lobbyists. A recently added disclaimer appeared to reinforce that opinion, despite years of informal policy to disregard it and instead advise government employees not to take anonymous gifts at all.
Apol’s predecessor, Walter Shaub — an Obama appointee who vacated his five-year term early after repeatedly clashing with the Trump administration over interpretations of ethics rules — flagged his concerns about the changes on Twitter last weekend.
The original Bill Clinton-era opinion reasoned that if donors were anonymous, they couldn’t exert any undue influence over their beneficiaries because the employee “does not know who the paymasters are.”
But soon after OGE issued that 1993 guidance that permitted unnamed gifts, agency officials began advising attorneys to stay away from all donations by lobbyists, anonymous or not, as they arranged funds benefiting President Bill Clinton, then-first lady Hillary Clinton and other White House aides, according to several former OGE officials.
OGE never revoked the original guidance during the subsequent two decades, but it did make a change to the document this past May.
Shaub instructed his staff this spring to put a one-sentence warning on the 1993 document declaring: “Some statements in this opinion are not consistent with current OGE interpretation and practice.”
He told POLITICO earlier this week he made the fix specifically so that Trump White House staff would know to disregard the 1993 document, even though it hadn’t yet been formally updated.
OGE declined to comment on the record Wednesday when POLITICO sought an explanation for the changes to the disclaimer.
In a statement Friday, OGE said its policy remains the same as when Shaub left the agency and it made the change “only to clarify that the main part of the advisory was still valid and to expressly encourage people to contact OGE before establishing a legal defense fund.”
Apol also said the original 1993 document would remain on the agency’s website.
A Trump White House official earlier this week said it was not helping to set up any legal defense funds and it also was not pushing for any change that allows anonymous donations. The White House, under the expectation outside groups would set up defense funds, was working with OGE to make sure it could give its employees the proper guidance.
Government watchdog groups on Friday urged OGE to clarify its stance. Public Citizen called on the agency to develop rules and guidance for all executive branch employees on the issue of legal defense funds, including details on contribution limits, which sources are prohibited and disclosure requirements. And American Oversight, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and Common Cause joined several other groups and individuals in calling for the original guidance document to be removed from OGE’s website.
“OGE should promptly resolve the controversy and confusion about this matter by rescinding the 1993 letter and by formally and publicly reaffirming its long-standing policy against anonymous lobbyist contributions to legal defense funds,” the groups wrote in a letter to Apol. “We also ask OGE to similarly clarify that gifts cannot be accepted from subordinates or anyone making the gift because of the appointee’s official position. Ethics best practices demand nothing less.”
We are preparing a petition to outlaw the use of dark money in Arizona elections. If we can get enough signatures, we will put it on the 2018 ballot. Please stay tuned for updates on our progress and when the petitions will be ready to circulate. We should be ready in early 2017 in order to have the maximum time for circulation! Thanks for staying interested and involved in protecting democracy in Arizona.
IN ONE of the most misbegotten rulings of recent times, the Supreme Court decided in Citizens United in 2010 that corporate campaign contributions are a protected form of free speech and that “effective disclosure” would guard against corruption. The court declared, “With the advent of the Internet, prompt disclosure of expenditures can provide shareholders and citizens with the information needed to hold corporations and elected officials accountable for their positions and supporters.” Moreover, the justices said, “This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages.”
The court’s assumption was naive and has largely proved wrong. “Dark money” campaign groups that keep their donors secret have ballooned in size and importance, including tax-exempt “social welfare” organizations that are allowed to conceal the sources of their funds. Now a new report from the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law shows how the contamination of dark money is spreading.
"Dark money spending — together with a new phenomenon we've identified as "gray money" — have surged in state and local elections. This report, the most comprehensive empirical look yet at the impact of secret spending beyond the federal level, finds that fully transparent spending has declined from 76 percent in 2006 to just 29 percent in 2014 in six states where data was available."
Back in October 2014, Republican Wisconsin attorney general candidate Brad Schimel was neck in neck with Susan Happ when a mysterious dark money group, with the phony name "Rule of Law Project," dropped into the race with a huge ad buy backing Schimel.
Now it appears the Rule of Law Project (ROLP) may have broken a few laws in its eagerness to elect an attorney general of its choosing. Yesterday, the Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) filed a formal complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice, the FBI and the IRS urging an investigation and alleging that the dark money group made false representations to the IRS.
A new spot that’s hitting TV and radio this week attacks three out of the four gubernatorial primary candidates, sparing only Winnetka venture capitalist Bruce Rauner.
A source with knowledge of the buy said the group — Mid-America Fund — spent roughly $180,000 on broadcast, cable, and radio for this week.
Nevada Congressional race swamped by dark money: http://snip.ly/8h5a7
Campaign spending by outside groups on a record breaking pace: http://snip.ly/vt47m
US House votes to make it even easier to hide political contributions!
"Nonprofit groups could spend more than $500 million on this year's presidential and congressional elections, up from $10 million in 2008, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics."