The U.S. Office of Government Ethics has quietly reversed its own internal policy prohibiting anonymous donations from lobbyists to White House staffers who have legal defense funds.
The little-noticed change could help President Donald Trump’s aides raise the money they need to pay attorneys as the Russia probe expands — but raises the potential for hidden conflicts of interest or other ethics trouble.
“You can picture a whole army of people with business before the government willing to step in here and make [the debt] go away,” said Marilyn Glynn, a former George W. Bush-era acting OGE director who worked in the office for 17 years.
Lawyer fees have long been the source of controversy for presidents under fire. Richard Nixon’s White House took covert steps to pay the Watergate burglars, and a trust set up during Bill Clinton’s first term to deal with Whitewater and other controversies had to return hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from a controversial Arkansas friend who was later indicted for campaign finance abuses.
At issue for the Trump staffers is a 1993 OGE guidance document that gave a green light to organizers of legal defense funds for government employees to solicit anonymous donations from otherwise prohibited sources — like lobbyists or others with business before the government. That Clinton-era opinion reasoned that if such donors were anonymous, such donations could be legal because the employee “does not know who the paymasters are.”
But former OGE officials say the ethics office quickly determined that guidance had flaws, and instead advised attorneys to stay away from all lobbyist donations, anonymous or not, as they arranged funds benefiting the Clintons and a cadre of senior White House aides.
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