Lobbyists flocked to the White House in Donald Trump’s last months in office, hoping to get pardons for their clients. As reports mandated by federal law ultimately showed, it was a monetary jackpot for Beltway insiders hoping to sway the irritated president’s ear.
But one man stands out among them, both for his prior position in the Trump administration and the fact that he never registered as a lobbyist, despite being paid $400,000 by a conservative “dark money” organization that had hired him to oversee its efforts to get pardons and commutations.
From September 2017 to February 2019, Matthew Whitaker held prominent positions in Trump’s Justice Department, culminating in a three-month term as acting Attorney General. When he ultimately left the government, he landed a nice job as the head of a new initiative for the right-wing group FreedomWorks.
Whitaker joined FreedomWorks in March 2020 to lead its new “American Freedom Initiative,” which “aims to recommend deserving individuals to the Trump administration for pardons and commutations.” According to a previously unreported federal filing from FreedomWorks, which is not required to reveal its donors, the nonprofit paid Whitaker $400,000 in unexplained “consulting” fees last year.
Whitaker’s position creates a variety of ethical concerns. He was personally engaged in White House clemency discussions as late as Trump’s last full day in office, yet he never registered as a lobbyist while pressing for pardons, and FreedomWorks never mentioned clemency problems in any of its 2020 lobbying filings.
Nonetheless, Whitaker is identified as an advocate in two official announcements: clemency given to convicted health-care fraudster Daniela Gozes-Wagner in December, and a last-minute conditional pardon granted to Stephen Odzer, who pled guilty to more than $16 million in bank fraud in 2006.
According to Kedric Payne, senior director of ethics and lobbying law at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, the available information implies that “substantial paid lobbying” remained undetected.
“Federal law requires disclosure from those who are paid to lobby for pardons,” Payne explained. “This matter raises red flags because there appears to be extensive paid lobbying, but no evidence of lobbying registration. The public has a right to full disclosure about who is lobbying our public officials.”
The regulations governing lobbying for pardons, according to Paul S. Ryan, vice president of litigation at government watchdog Common Cause, are hazy and virtually untested prior to Trump’s last months. He did, however, point out that a handful of Trump lobbyists felt compelled to declare their employment.
“Other lobbyists tied to Trump have reported massive income lobbying the administration for pardons. Any failure by Whitaker to disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars received to lobby the Trump administration warrants close scrutiny,” Ryan stated.
The arrangement also raises concerns about Whitaker’s still-new ties with Justice Department officials and Trump, who passed over Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein when appointing Whitaker to the top role in November 2019.
The nomination was dogged by questions about its legality and Whitaker’s credentials, as well as Trump’s attempt to wield control over Robert Mueller’s special inquiry. Whitaker led the department during the closing phases of the Mueller investigation, but his major qualifications for the post appeared to be that he had worked as chief-of-staff to Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions, for two years.
Because of this, Whitaker’s time at the DOJ nearly precisely corresponded with the conviction and punishment in one of his successful clemency applications.
In September 2017, a jury convicted Daniela Gozes-Wagner guilty of fraud and money laundering for her participation in a multimillion-dollar Medicare and Medicaid fraud scam run by a Russian business. Whitaker had been named Sessions’ chief of staff the week before.
According to various persons familiar with the operation, top Trump friends are putting together a legal fund to defend protest organizers who have been subpoenaed as part of Congress’ investigation into the assault on the United States Capitol. The funds would be used to hire the legal firm that Whitaker works for at present.
The legal fund reveals how affluent and influential individuals in Trump’s inner circle are looking out for the president’s former advisers who are being probed for their part in organizing a huge protest at the White House Ellipse on January 6.
According to various reports, Matt and Mercedes Schlapp have established a legal fund to pay for the defense of many persons who have been subpoenaed by the House Select Committee on January 6th.
“Matt Schlapp, Mercedes Schlapp, and Matt Whitaker offered to pay for everyone’s legal fees except” for two people under subpoena, according to an attorney familiar with the legal fund. “They’re doing it all through Whitaker’s firm in Kansas City.”
Whitaker is presently an associate with Graves Garrett in Kansas City, Missouri. According to an attorney working on House investigative concerns, Whitaker is “supervising” two other attorneys from the company, Paul Brothers and Todd Graves, in their defense of rally organizers. Due to the sensitivity of the current inquiry, the attorney talked on the condition of anonymity.
The money will not assist the hundreds of Trump fans accused of storming the building. Trump, who had already urged supporters to come to Washington on that day to protest the certification of his defeat to President Joe Biden, addressed on stage at the gathering and pushed the throng to march to the Capitol. As Trump spoke, some in the audience started marching the mile and a half to the Capitol dome, and the barriers were broken minutes before the former president finished his speech.
Text messages that indicate the Schlapps’ “legal fund” and statements from a Jan. 6 demonstration organizer on a recent conservative podcast further support the existence of the arrangement.
The Schlapps forwarded Rolling Stone to a spokeswoman, who released a statement claiming that the rally organizers are being represented by the American Conservative Union’s “First Amendment Fund.” The ACU’s chairman is Matt Schlapp. The fund is intended to “guarantee Conservatism stays flourishing despite woke warriors in government who overreach and exploit the people they’re meant to serve,” according to the statement.
Whitaker, Brothers, and Graves did not reply to inquiries concerning the fund. The House Select Committee’s spokespeople refused to comment.
In elite Republican circles, the Schlapps and Whitaker are well-connected. Mercedes Schlapp worked in Trump’s White House as the director of strategic communications. Her husband, Matt, is the head of the powerful Conservative Political Action Coalition. Whitaker served as interim attorney general for slightly over three months, from November 2018 to February 2019.
According to the attorney handling the inquiry, the fund was set up by previous president supporters as a way “it shows fealty to Trump.” According to the attorney who spoke and was privy to the conversations the Graves Garrett team had with other people involved in the investigation, it was clear that the lawyers on that team wanted to learn about the broader progress of the House select committee’s investigation into the Capitol attack.
“They wanted to know shit,” the attorney says.
According to the sources, Schlapps’ fund is paying for legal representation for several Trumpworld figures who\ were subpoenaed by Congress on September 29 along with a group of “individuals tied to the events and rallies leading up to the January 6th insurrection,” including former Trump aides who were listed on permit paperwork for the Ellipse rally. Maggie Mulvaney, a former Trump campaign worker who is also the niece of former White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney; Tim Unes, who worked with Trump’s campaign and now runs an event management firm called Event Strategies Inc.; Justin Caporale, Unes’ partner at Event Strategies who formerly worked in Trump’s White House as a lead advance representative; and Megan Powers, a former Trump campaign worker who is also the niece of former White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney.
According to Rolling Stone, Caporale has “zero comment” on the defense fund. Requests for response from Mulvaney and Powers went unanswered. “You know, on this one, we’re simply going to not speak about anything until it’s through,” Unes said of the fund and probe. “You know on this one we’re just going to not talk about anything until it’s over. We’re pretty confident that we were just the production guys and, you know, eventually the committee will move on to somebody else,” Unes said in a short phone chat. “I don’t want to get into any of it. I’m not really concerned, but I’m also not used to this sort of thing.”
The legal fund does not cover all of the rally organizers who were subpoenaed by the House special committee that day. Graves Garrett is not representing Caroline Wren, a Trump donor, or Katrina Pierson, a former Trump campaign spokesman, according to various sources. Requests for feedback from Wren and Pierson went unanswered. Hannah Salem, a former White House aide who did not reply to a request for comment, is also not covered by the fund.
Along with the former Trump campaign aides summoned on Sept. 29, the committee subpoenaed activists and a security contractor participating in the Ellipse demonstration. Amy Kremer, chairperson of the pro-Trump organization Women For America First, was one of those activists who addressed the legal fund in an appearance on a conservative podcast that aired on Monday. During that chat, Kremer said that she was getting no help from Trumpworld while soliciting funds to pay her defense.
“Honestly, we’ve got no support. I have not heard from the president since January, since I saw him on January 6. They are not helping us or assisting us with our legal bills,” Kremer said, adding, “There were a number of their team members subpoenaed on the same day. … From my understanding, they’ve started a legal defense fund for them.”
The Schlapps’ fund will not help the hundreds of individuals who stormed the Capitol on January 6 and are now being investigated by the FBI. Over 600 persons have been charged as a result of this investigation, which is the biggest in the bureau’s history. So far, the FBI probe has concentrated on Trump supporters who stormed into the Capitol building, while a House select committee has looked into the organization of the former president’s attempts to contest the election.
When asked whether the legal fund created by Trump friends is assisting any of the ex-fans president’s who have broken into the halls of Congress, the attorney responds succinctly.
“Oh fuck no,” the attorney says. “Their fund is to defend the people that put on the Trump rally.”
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