September 14, 2017 •
OGE: Federal Employee’s Legal Defense Funds May Possibly Accept Anonymous Contributions
A change of a note regarding an Office of Government Ethics (OGE) guidance document from 1993 may open the door to allowing anonymous contributions, including from prohibited sources such as lobbyists, to government employees’ legal defense funds. In 1993, the OGE issued an opinion letter holding a fund established for the benefit of a government employee to pay the employee’s legal expenses, while administered by a person having no connection with the employee’s official duties, could accept anonymous contributions. The OGE guidance letter is not legally binding.
Walter Shaub, then director of the OGE, instructed his staff in May of this year to add a one-sentence note to the top of the document signaling the OGE’s long standing internal practice had diverged from the formal guidance, according to Politico. The note read in all caps and a red font, “NOTE: SOME STATEMENTS IN THIS OPINION ARE NOT CONSISTENT WITH CURRENT OGE INTERPRETATION AND PRACTICE.”
Subsequently, after Shaub left the OGE, the document’s note was changed to read, again in all caps and a red font, “NOTE: THE PRIMARY FINDING ABOUT THE LIMITED APPLICABILITY OF 18 U.S.C. §209 TO PAYMENTS MADE FOR AN EMPLOYEE’S LEGAL EXPENSES HAS NOT CHANGED. HOWEVER, BECAUSE EACH ANALYSIS IS VERY FACT-SPECIFIC, AGENCY ETHICS OFFICIALS SHOULD CONSULT WITH THEIR OGE DESK OFFICER BEFORE ADVISING EMPLOYEES ON THIS TOPIC.”
Critics of the note change say this opens the door up to lobbyists and other prohibited sources funding legal defenses for employees currently working in the White House. Richard Lucas, once counsel for a Clinton legal defense fund, told Politico, “Not knowing the source is a recipe for disaster.”
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