Trump legal fund recipients unclear; Flynn says no thanks

The funds help White House, campaign aides with probe-related legal expenses.

February 22, 2018, 2:44 PM

— -- Former National Security Advisor Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn will not accept support from a new legal fund called the “Patriot Legal Expense Fund” established with President Donald Trump’s campaign funds to help his White House and campaign aides shoulder legal expenses related to the special counsel’s probe, a source close to Flynn told ABC News.

“General Flynn early on made a decision not to accept funds from President Trump, the Trump Organization, or the campaign, and has not accepted any funds from them,” the source said. “And he does not expect to accept any funds from the new entity.”

Lawyers paid with Trump campaign money have, for weeks, been working to start up the legal defense fund. The aim is to provide financial support for any bills incurred by anyone who “was an employee, consultant, fundraised or volunteer" on behalf of President Trump’s campaign, according to a document labeled “draft” that was posted on the Office of Government Ethics website late last month.

How the fund is used, and who gains access, could become influential as various targets of the investigation decide whether or not to avail themselves of the money, legal experts told ABC News.

Neither Paul Manafort nor Richard Gates, both former Trump campaign aides who face charges in the Special Counsel probe, have said whether they will seek to access the fund to finance their defense.

One of President Trump’s attorneys, Ty Cobb, told NBC in November the fund would not cover the fees for “indictees or current targets.”

Flynn pleaded guilty in December to lying to the FBI about conversations with the Russian ambassador. He was the first senior White House official who agreed to cooperate with the special counsel investigation into election interference.

“Merely paying someone else’s legal fees is not illegal. But if you use those payments to try to exert control or prevent someone from cooperating with the prosecution that could potentially be obstruction of justice,” said Kathleen Clark, a legal ethics expert at Washington University in St. Louis.

“The prosecutor would probably look skeptically at these payments. It could call into question the credibility of the witness and taint the testimony,” Clark said. “Nothing necessarily illegal about the payments, but the fact of the payment could be used to question the credibility of the witness. The prosecutor would not want that testimony tainted.”

Stephen Gillers, an ethics expert at New York University School of Law, says defending a felony prosecution can cost as much as $10 million, and he is adamant about a defendant’s right to raise money to offset those expenses.

“It is none of the government’s business about how a defendant funds his case,” Gillers told ABC News. “The only time the government has an interest is if the money is tainted money, the fruits of your crime.”

The Patriot Fund documents were drawn up by lawyers from Wiley Rein LLP, including top Republican election attorney Michael Toner. It remains unclear who sought the fund’s creation or how much in assets the funds currently hold.

The Trump campaign spent $1.1 million on legal fees last quarter which included a $10,000 payment to the same law firm for “legal consulting,” according to FEC filings. A source with knowledge at the time of the document being filed told ABC News the campaign did hire the law firm to start the fund, but that the campaign will have no role in the day to day management or the funding of the project.

Most of the legal questions surround the potential for donors to the fund to improperly influence current government employees. Those questions led to a review by the Office of Government Ethics (OGE). A letter signed by acting OGE Director David Apol said they have reviewed the draft proposal for the fund but do “not approve or disapprove of specific legal defense funds.”

“If the fund is established and administered in accordance with the terms set out in the attached agreement, both the managers and the employee recipients will be in compliance” with the necessary statutes, Apol wrote.

Documents posted on the Office of Government Ethics website says members of the Trump administration and transition team can also benefit from the fund with some exceptions. It explicitly says President Trump and anyone in his immediate family cannot benefit from the fund .

The document says the fund will compensate those who incur legal expenses from the investigation being led by various Congressional Committees and Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe into Russian meddling during the 2016 Presidential Elections.

“The fund will help many of us that never anticipated being in this situation,” a former campaign official, who faces tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills who believes they will benefit from the defense fund, told ABC News.

This is not the first time a legal defense fund has been established to aide members of a previous Presidential administration or campaign in paying for legal needs. Towards the end of the Bill Clinton administration, the “Clinton Legal Expense Trust” was established to aide Clinton staff who part of the Whitewater Investigation, Paula Jones sexual harassment lawsuit and Congress’ impeachment inquiry and trial.

Last September, relatives of Flynn made a rare public statement in September to call attention to the “tremendous financial burden” the probes are placing on former advisers to President Donald Trump.

“The enormous expense of attorneys’ fees and other related expenses far exceed their ability to pay,” said Michael Flynn’s siblings Joe Flynn and Barbara Redgate.

They made the statement to bring attention to their own legal defense fund — formed to help raise money for their brother, who briefly served as Trump’s first national security adviser, after joining the Trump campaign as an adviser in 2016. Michael Flynn was forced to resign after just 24 days as national security adviser, after it was revealed that he misled Vice President Mike Pence about his conversations with Russian officials during the presidential transition.

Flynn, a decorated military officer who served as the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency from 2012 until his retirement in 2014, was out of the spotlight only briefly. He emerged as an early target of special counsel Robert Mueller, who was appointed to investigate Russian interference in the election. Congress also began pursuing information from Flynn, but he has so far provided only limited information to the House and Senate committees charged with investigating election interference.

His family said they established their own fund, “to help ensure that he can defend himself," and tweeted from his personal account for the first time since late last year to express his gratitude.

Referring to his wife, Lori Flynn, Michael Flynn wrote in two tweets, "Lori and I are very grateful to my brother Joe and sister Barbara for creating a fund to help pay my legal defense costs. We deeply appreciate the support of family and friends across this nation who have touched our lives."

ABC News' Lauren Pearle contributed to this report.

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