In Donald Trump’s last few months in power, lobbyists have invaded the White House in hopes of securing pardons for their clients. It was a cash boon for Beltway insiders aspiring to listen to the aggrieved president, as disclosures required by federal law later revealed.
But one person stands out among that crowd, both for his former role in the Trump administration and for the fact that he never registered as a lobbyist, even though he was paid $ 400,000 by a conservative group “of black money” which had made use of it to lead its efforts to obtain pardons and commutations.
Matthew Whitaker held senior positions in Trump’s Justice Department from September 2017 to February 2019, ending his tenure at the Justice Department with a three-month term as Acting Attorney General. And when he finally left administration, he found a pretty cool job, chairing a new project for the right-wing nonprofit FreedomWorks.
The group enlisted Whitaker in March 2020 to lead its new “American Freedom Initiative,” which FreedomWorks claims âAims to recommend deserving people to the Trump administration for pardons and commutations. A federal not previously reported deposit from FreedomWorks, which does not have to disclose its donors, shows that the organization paid Whitaker $ 400,000 last year in unspecified “consulting” fees.
This role raises a number of ethical questions for Whitaker. It was directly involved in White House leniency negotiations maybe as late as Trump’s last full day in office, but never registered as a lobbyist while pleading for pardons – and FreedomWorks never mentioned leniency issues in any of its 2020 lobbying reports.
Yet Whitaker is listed as a lawyer in two official announcements – December leniency granted to convicted healthcare fraudster Daniela Gozes-Wagner, and the conditional last-minute pardon extended to Stephen odzer, who in 2006 pleaded guilty to more than $ 16 million in bank fraud.
Kedric Payne, senior ethics director specializing in lobbying law at Campaign Legal Center’s non-partisan watchdog, said available evidence suggests “intensive paid lobbying” has not been reported.
âFederal law requires disclosure of those who are paid to lobby for pardons,â Payne explained. âThis case raises red flags because there appears to be significant paid lobbying, but no evidence of lobbying registration. The public has the right to know who is lobbying our public officials. “
Paul S. Ryan, vice president of litigation at Common Cause, the government’s watchdog, pointed out that the laws around lobbying for pardons were particularly vague and that before Trump’s final months, they had not. not been tested. But he also noted that a number of Trump lobbyists have seen fit to disclose this work.
âOther lobbyists linked to Trump have reported massive incomes by lobbying the administration for pardons. Any failure by Whitaker to disclose the hundreds of thousands of dollars he received to pressure the Trump administration deserves close scrutiny, âRyan told The Daily Beast.
Neither Whitaker nor FreedomWorks responded to requests for comment.
The arrangement also raises questions about Whitaker’s still-emerging relationship with Justice Department officials and Trump himself, who succeeded Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein when he gave Whitaker the most senior post. in November 2019.
The appointment was rocked by controversy over its constitutionality and Whitaker’s own qualifications, as good as affecting Trump was trying to exercise Robert Mueller’s special investigation. Whitaker led the department until the final stages of the Mueller investigation, but his main credentials for the post appeared to be that he had served for two years as chief of staff to Trump’s first attorney general, Jeff Sessions.
This tenure actually meant that Whitaker’s time in the DOJ overlapped almost perfectly with the conviction and conviction in one of his successful offers of pardon.
In September 2017, a jury found Daniela Gozes-Wagner guilty of fraud and money laundering for her role in a Russian company’s multi-million dollar Medicare and Medicaid fraud program. Whitaker had been appointed session chief of staff the week before.
Gozes-Wagner was then sentenced to 20 years in prison and ordered to pay $ 15.2 million in restitution. This was the most severe sentence in the case, although a number of circumstances complicated the company’s prosecution, including guilty pleas, government cooperation and a crippling suicide attempt. Whitaker left the DOJ two days before sentencing.
Still, it’s not clear whether FreedomWorks itself saw a return on its investment in Whitaker.
According to the group website, AFI advocated for leniency on behalf of more than 30 people. Many were women and people of color, and the site lists several convictions related to drug offenses. But the site identifies only three successful candidates, and the list does not include Gozes-Wagner or Odzer.
These three graces were also granted before FreedomWorks launched its collaboration with Whitaker. White House recordings show Whitaker pleaded for the three in a personal capacity, but pardons were granted in February 2020, about three weeks before Whitaker officially joined FreedomWorks.
In a March 11 interview announcing the new initiative, FreedomWorks communications director Peter Vicenzi specifically inquired about these three cases, asking Whitaker: âWe have submitted their names, haven’t we? “
Whitaker did not respond directly, responding: “So AFI, we work with many other groups in this space.” The White House announcement cited several organizations supporting the same three candidates, but FreedomWorks and AFI were not among them.
In the announcement video, Whitaker, who a decade before accepting the Trump administration position was the United States Deputy Prosecutor, anticipated accusations of hypocrisy. His efforts, he said, were “by no means a broad accusation” of law enforcement officers who “work so hard on these cases and put their lives in danger.”
Some of his former colleagues seem to disagree. federal prosecutors called Trump’s generous application of executive leniency – especially to healthcare fraudsters like Gozes-Wagner – “disheartening, demoralizing” and “an incredible kick in the teeth.”
However, another possible mercy was in the air, and it struck close for Whitaker.
Weeks before Whitaker joined the AFI, a federal judge sentenced Trump loyalist Roger Stone to 40 months in prison for witness tampering and misrepresentation.
Whitaker has repeatedly defended Stone, who was indicted under his watch as acting attorney general in January 2019.
Shortly after Stone’s arrest, Whitaker, in his capacity as Acting Attorney General, said in sworn testimony of Congress that he had been informed of the decision and had repeated a conspiracy theory about the arrest.
Five days before Trump granted the February 2020 pardons, Whitaker took to Fox News as a private citizen to defend then the controversial decision of Attorney General William Barr to reduce the sentence recommended by the Department of Justice for Stone, which he described as “too serious”.
In that February 13, 2020 interview, Whitaker said the president had “absolutely” done nothing wrong when he suggested Barr intervene. He also claimed that CNN had been “informed” of Stone’s arrest and complained about the “bias” of the chairman of the jury, citing previous anti-Trump tweets.
The day after the folly of forgiveness in February, Trump tweeted a clip of Tucker Carlson discussing Stone’s conviction, in which the Fox News personality pitched the idea that the president “could end this parody in an instant with a pardon, and there are indications tonight that ‘he will do it”.
Trump finally commuted Stone’s sentence in July. Whitaker then turned to Fox News again, repulsive on widespread criticism of cronyism.
In that interview, Whitaker – who at the time was paid to obtain pardons from his former boss – said that Trump “has looked at instances where he believes fairness, fundamental fairness, has not been done and he tries to correct these wrongs. The former attorney general added that he “would expect this president to continue to fulfill this role that he grants other pardons, commutations and other pardons of the executive as he does. hear it “.
At least two of these repayments would be granted to candidates backed by Whitaker: Gozes-Wagner and Stephen Odzen. However, Odzen’s narrow pardon did not cover his exposure in two pending lawsuits, a still-pending contract dispute involving PPE for COVID-19 and a $ 500 million fraud lawsuit filed by the Securities & Exchange Commission against a predatory lender. The case prompted the lender to take action against Odzen and several of his companies, which in total owed $ 91 million.
By comparison, those numbers exceed the $ 26 million that Whitaker’s former employer, World Patent Marketing, paid to settle a federal fraud case in 2018. The Federal Trade Commission firm the company to defraud customers in the hope of obtaining patents for their inventions, many of which – like “male toilets” – were scandalous and had little chance of success.
Whitaker acted as attack counsel for the company and had invoked his status as a former Assistant US Attorney to lend credibility to the operation. The FTC subpoenaed Whitaker’s files in October 2017, weeks after his DOJ appointment under Sessions, but he reportedly Did not respond. A court official in charge of the case said he had “no reason to believe” that Whitaker knew about the scam.
The FBI and the US Postal Service later would have opened investigations into the company, and it was not reported that they closed.
Government recordings published last September a number of Freedom of Information Act requests to the FTC for documents related to Whitaker, some of them relating to his role in global patent marketing. The status of these requests has not been disclosed.