Democrats raise ethics questions about Trump defense fund

Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the ranking member of the House Oversight committee, expressed concerns about the arrangement. Peter Foley/EPA/Shutterstock/File 2016

WASHINGTON — Congressional Democrats raised ethics questions on Monday about the framework of a defense fund set up to help pay legal costs for White House, Trump campaign, and Trump transition officials caught up in investigations into Russian meddling in the election.

Eighteen House Democrats claim the new defense fund appears to be structured more loosely than ones in earlier administrations. Because of the way it’s set up, the fund could receive donations from lobbyists or others with interests before the Trump administration — and also could be used to influence witnesses, the Democrats warned in a letter to David Apol, acting director of the Office of Government Ethics.

The Democrats asked the ethics office to provide records documenting communications between Wiley Rein LLP, the Washington law firm that set up the fund, and White House, Trump campaign, and transition representatives.

In late January, Apol told a group of lawyers who set up the fund that a draft agreement of its structure appeared to be in compliance with federal ethics law. But the ethics office has not officially approved of the structure of the fund, called the Patriot Legal Expense Fund Trust LLC.

In their letter to Apol, the Democrats, including Representative Elijah Cummings of Maryland, the ranking member of the House Oversight committee, said that while previous defense funds earmarked money for individual officials, the new defense fund ‘‘has the authority to pay money to an unlimited number of individuals, with limited disclosure requirements.’’

Democrats claim the Patriot fund appears to allow donations by lobbyists or others with interests before the government — and could perhaps evade disclosure altogether.

A group of Wiley Rein lawyers sent a draft agreement of the Patriot defense fund to the ethics office on Jan. 29 after discussions with agency officials. Several Wiley Rein partners have a history of ties to Republican administrations and the GOP.

A spokesman for the law firm was not immediately available for comment on the Demcrats’ letter.

In a separate development, a former employee of Trump’s campaign team sued the organization to nullify a nondisclosure agreement she signed, saying it muzzled her from airing discrimination claims.

Jessica Denson, who oversaw phone banks and Hispanic outreach, claims she was harassed by a superior. She had filed a discrimination case against the campaign in New York state court, but the campaign sought to enforce the confidentiality deal, filing an arbitration claim asserting $1.5 million in damages.

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