By Francisco Alvarado, FloridaBulldog.org
From last July to March, the campaign committee for freshman Florida Congressman Francis Rooney paid roughly $117,000 to the former law firm of White House Counsel Donald McGahn II. However, neither Rooney nor McGahn are answering questions about the payments to Jones Day, a global firm based in Cleveland where McGahn was a partner for nearly three years before joining President Donald Trump’s administration in January.
So far, the only information McGahn, a former commissioner for the Federal Election Commission, has released is that he provided “legal services” exceeding $5,000 to the Rooney for Congress campaign committee, according to his public financial disclosure report. Campaign finance reports filed by Rooney for Congress show nine disbursements to Jones Day between last July and March. Jones Day received five of those payments totaling $72,328 after the Nov. 8 election, including $17,505 on the day of Trump’s inauguration, Jan. 19
Efforts by Florida Bulldog to get answers about the type of “legal services” McGahn and Jones Day provided Rooney for Congress were unsuccessful. Over the course of four days, White House media affairs director and former Miami political television host Helen Ferre did not respond to three email requests to interview McGahn. Likewise, Rooney press secretary Chris Berardi did not respond to three emails and three voicemails requesting comment from the Naples-area U.S. representative, a rising star in the Capitol’s GOP power circle. A spokesman for Jones Day declined comment.
McGahn and Rooney may not want to talk, but a government watchdog group and two campaign finance lawyers who spoke to Florida Bulldog believe the costly legal services may be for defending the congressman or his committee in a civil investigation for either ethics or campaign violations.
“You can never really know without them telling you,” said Jordan Libowitz, spokesman for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “But that pattern of spending is consistent with people who are under investigation by the Federal Election Commission.”
He added: “It certainly raised a flag when we started looking at Donald McGahn’s financial disclosure statement.”
The attorneys, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, concurred that the expenditures seem to indicate that a probe by the commission, also known as the FEC, is taking place. “There could be a civil investigation by the FEC inquiring about donations and expenditures within the campaign,” said one lawyer, who has represented clients accused of federal civil and criminal campaign violations. “Once the FEC starts an inquiry, you got to get a lawyer.”
The other lawyer, who primarily represents city, county and state candidates, said it could also be that Rooney is under investigation by the Office of Congressional Ethics. “That would entitle him to the use of his campaign funds to defend against a complaint,” the attorney said. “I can’t see anything else these payments are for but an investigation.”
Riding the Trump train
Rooney, one of the first prominent Florida Republicans to climb aboard the Trump train, has become a leading conservative voice. The former U.S. Ambassador to the Vatican, Rooney owns a construction company that built the Dallas Cowboys’ new stadium and the presidential libraries honoring the two Bush presidents. Before jumping into the race to represent Florida’s 19th Congressional District, Rooney was one of the top Republican rainmakers in the country.
In February, Rooney participated in two panels about national security and political correctness at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC. In a press statement at the time, CPAC Chairman Matt Schlapp hailed Rooney as a “much needed and welcomed” addition to Congress. “He will stand up for you and for conservative policies,” Schlapp said. “We are proud to welcome him to our stage next week.”
While filings for Rooney for Congress don’t show any warning letters from the FEC regarding impermissible donations and expenditures, McGahn seems to be the ideal counselor to hire when campaigns run into trouble with the commission.
A January Jones Day press release touted McGahn’s commission credentials from 2008 to 2013 when Trump selected him as White House Counsel. “He led what has been called a ‘revolution’ in campaign finance,” the statement says. “He rewrote virtually all of the FEC’s procedures for audits, enforcement matters, and advisory opinions, which provide for an unprecedented amount of due process.”
However, press reports paint a much more controversial tenure. Campaign finance reform groups clashed with McGahn over his efforts to deregulate the FEC. He voted to loosen restrictions that prohibited parties from using campaign money for recounts and litigation. In 2013 before he resigned, he unsuccessfully pushed a rule that would have barred FEC lawyers from sharing information with federal prosecutors without commission approval. But McGahn was instrumental in passing a new rule allowing campaigns and party committees to present their cases in open session instead of behind closed doors.
McGahn joined the Trump team early on in the billionaire developer’s astonishing run to win the White House. He served as the campaign’s general counsel and lists several Trump political committees as clients on his financial disclosure form. When Trump appointed him as the commander-in-chief’s top lawyer, 13 attorneys from Jones Day joined McGahn at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Since Trump took office, McGahn has been at the center of some of the biggest controversies to hit the new administration. For instance, then-acting Attorney General Sally Yates warned McGahn’s office in January that Michael Flynn, Trump’s first pick as National Security Adviser, had misled officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, about his conversations with Russia’s U.S. Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and could be vulnerable to Russian blackmail.
When Flynn was subsequently forced to resign after his compromised position was leaked to national media outlets, questions arose about McGahn’s handling of the information he received. During a February press briefing, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer defended McGahn, saying he “informed the President immediately” and that he concluded Flynn did not violate any laws after conducting “exhaustive and extensive questioning of Flynn.”