The Maryland and District of Columbia attorneys general have their hands full with their prosecutorial duties even without their litigation against President Trump, and that’s where a Soros-funded progressive advocacy group comes in.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington [CREW] is providing pro bono legal help for the 2017 lawsuit filed by Maryland and the District alleging that Mr. Trump has violated the domestic and foreign emoluments clauses of the U.S. Constitution with his hotel properties used by public officials and foreign governments.
The lawsuit is on shaky ground — the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed it two weeks ago, although prosecutors continue to pursue the case — but CREW’s involvement has raised concerns on the right about activists infiltrating the offices of the states’ top law-enforcement authorities.
Founded in 2002, CREW bills itself as a government-watchdog group aimed at rooting out campaign finance, ethics and tax abuses, but Scott Walter, president of the conservative Capital Research Center, said the organization’s focus is trained overwhelmingly on Republicans.
“It’s a one-eyed watchdog,” said Mr. Walter, whose group runs the Influence Watch website. “The right eye doesn’t work. Just the left.”
On the other hand, suing the White House is a bipartisan activity. Both Democratic attorneys general under Mr. Trump and Republicans under President Barack Obama have increasingly used the legal system to fight administration policies.
The multi-state tobacco litigation of the 1990s and 2000s spawned a gold rush of private firms lobbying to pair up with state prosecutors on consumer-protection lawsuits. In 2015, The New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize for a series about the lucrative partnerships titled “Courting Favor.”
The phenomenon has since spread to advocates seeking not to procure fat contingency fees but to advance their agendas, as with AGs United for Clean Power, the 2016 alliance of Democratic prosecutors aimed at pursuing ExxonMobil, an effort pushed by climate activists.
Billionaire Michael Bloomberg took it a step further in 2017 by funding the creation of the State Impact Center at New York University, which places paid-for special assistant attorneys general in the offices of Democratic AGs to work on climate-change matters.
Attorneys general are typically permitted to hire outside counsel on cases requiring specialization, but it’s one thing to hire a private law firm, and it’s another to bring in a group like CREW, said Chris Horner, an attorney with the public-interest law firm Government Accountability & Oversight.
He called the partnership “in keeping with the weaponization of law-enforcement offices.”
“If AGs are using private resources to do what they otherwise would not be doing, then you have a problem, in that they are letting out a law enforcement office to donors and activists,” said Mr. Horner, whose firm runs the Climate Litigation Watch website.
In an open-records request for Energy Policy Advocates, Mr. Horner unearthed a Donor Agreement between D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine’s office and an attorney, Robert McKinstry of Pennsylvania, who said he agreed to work pro bono on the emoluments litigation via CREW.
Mr. McKinstry, who’s running for the Democratic nomination for a Pennsylvania Senate seat, described the work as “non-partisan,” saying, “I wouldn’t characterize it as activist or political.”
“Personally, I have no problem with it. They’re experts,” he said, referring to CREW’s work on ethics issues. “That’s what they specialize in. But I would talk to them.”
Jordan Libowitz, CREW communications director, emphasized that the attorneys receive no compensation from CREW. Asked if it was appropriate for an advocacy group to provide counsel to state prosecutors on a law-enforcement matter, he said, “Yes.”
“Again, non-profit legal organizations have represented clients for generations,” Mr. Libowitz said in an email. “In fact, you’ll find many of the most famous cases in the last century had non-profit organizations providing representation. It’s also important to note that this is not a law-enforcement action, it is a civil case.”
The Office of Maryland Attorney General Brian Frosh did not respond immediately to a request for comment. Mr. Racine’s office indicated that government agencies often accept outside legal assistance.
Mr. McKinstry pointed out that the top ethics officials in both the Obama and George W. Bush White Houses—Norm Eisen and Richard Painter, respectively—have said that Mr. Trump’s business holdings violate the Foreign Emoluments Clause, which forbids gifts or payments from foreign governments.
Mr. Painter also served as vice chair of CREW, a 501(c)3 whose mission is to “highlight abuses, change behavior, and lay the groundwork for new policies and approaches that encourage public officials to work for the benefit of the people, not powerful interests.”
Funders include liberal stalwarts such as Democratic megadonor George Soros’s Open Society Foundations, which donated $1.35 million in 2017, according to the Washington Free Beacon, as well as the Gill Foundation and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.
CREW was previously chaired by Democratic operative David Brock, founder of the left-tilting Media Matters for America, as part of what Influence Watch described as his network to “oppose Republican officeholders.”
“CREW is not remotely objective or non-partisan,” said Mr. Walter. “It was founded by Democratic donors, it is funded by Democratic donors still, and it’s staffed by Democratic operatives.”
The litigation filed by the District and Maryland, which lists CREW as pro hac vice, or “for this occasion only,” is one of several Emoluments Clause lawsuits.
In June 2017, the Constitutional Accountability Center, a think-tank and law firm, filed a lawsuit on behalf of about 200 members of Congress alleging Mr. Trump had violated the Foreign Emoluments Clause with his “vast business holdings around the world that engage in dealings with foreign governments.”
In January 2017, CREW filed its own Foreign Emoluments Clause lawsuit against Mr. Trump in the Southern District of New York, which was dismissed, although CREW has appealed.
Should it matter if an attorney general accepts legal help from a group with a political tilt, as long as it’s not costing the taxpayers? Mr. Walter put it this way: “What if a Republican AG were using the NRA for litigation on gun control laws?”
“How would that smell to people,” he asked, “even if the NRA was donating all of its time?”
• Valerie Richardson can be reached at email@example.com.
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