Stefan Passantino Punches Back Against Ethics Allegations

Stefan Passantino, Michael Best, Washington, D.C. (Courtesy photo)

Former Deputy White House Counsel Stefan Passantino says an allegation from the chairman of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Reform accusing him of making false statements to ethics officials is just plain wrong.

While Passantino said he can’t say much more, the longtime Atlanta lawyer has the backing of the oversight committee’s ranking Republican, the chairman of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, as well as a former law partner.

In a Feb. 15 letter to the White House, oversight committee chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Maryland, said new documents from the Office of Government Ethics “describe false information provided by the lawyers representing President Trump.”

Cummings’ letter singled out Passantino—now a partner at Michael Best and outside counsel to the Trump Organization—and President Donald Trump’s outside tax attorney, Sheri Dillon of Morgan Lewis & Bockius.

Cummings opened an investigation last month into the president’s alleged failure to report payments to his longtime New York attorney and fixer Michael Cohen to silence two women Trump allegedly had affairs with: porn star Stormy Daniels and former Playboy bunny Karen McDougal. The payments were not on the president's financial disclosure forms.

“It now appears that President Trump’s other attorneys—at the White House and in private practice—may have provided false information about these payments to federal officials,” Cummings’ letter said. “This raised significant questions about why some of the President’s closest advisers made these false claims and the extent to which they too were acting at the direction of, or in coordination with, the President.”

Making a false statement to a government agency is a felony.

Passantino denied the allegations and said the Office of Government Ethics will confirm it.

“I made no representations on behalf of the White House regarding the facts of Michael Cohen’s financial relationship with anyone,” Passantino said. He declined to comment further.

OGE press liaison Elizabeth Horton declined to comment, referring The Daily Report to the agency’s website for guidance on what is required to be reported.

A review of OGE staff notes that Cummings made public indicate that the chairman’s allegations in Passantino’s case appear to rest on a single, barely legible, handwritten notation made by an unidentified official with the Office of Government Ethics during a May 8, 2018, conference call.

Notes indicate the call included David Apol, then OGE’s acting director and former general counsel; at least one other OGE staff member whose name is redacted; Dillon and her Morgan Lewis law partners Fred Fielding and William Nelson; and Passantino.

Fielding served as White House counsel to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, and as associate and deputy White House counsel to Richard Nixon. Nelson previously served as chief counsel to the IRS.

Cummings’ letter accusing Trump lawyers of making false statements made no mention of either Fielding or Nelson.

Cummings’ letter said the conference call was prompted by public statements made days earlier by the president and outside counsel Rudy Giuliani that Cohen was paid a monthly retainer, and that the payments to Daniels and McDougal were made and then reimbursed via Cohen’s law firm.

Those statements conflicted with the president’s financial disclosure forms, the letter said.

They also conflicted with Cohen’s guilty plea three months after the call and federal prosecutors’ revelation that, when Cohen paid off the two women, he had no retainer agreement with Trump.

In a Dec. 7 sentencing memorandum cited in Cummings letter, federal prosecutors said Cohen “arranged for his own reimbursement via fraudulent invoices for non-existent legal services ostensibly performed pursuant to a non-existent ‘retainer’ agreement.”

But notes provided by OGE officials to the committee reflect that during the May 8, 2018, conference call, Dillon claimed the payments to Cohen were made “in connection with legal services.” Cummings’ letter said that, “Stefan Passantino … made the same argument about the retainer agreement to OGE officials.”

According to that handwritten note Cummings cited: “Stefan—my understanding that in course of legal services he was authorized to outlay and that was part of retainer agreement. Legal fees charged on monthly basis. Sees it as revolving credit as what shouldn’t be disclosed.”

A typewritten account of the same call also released by the committee didn’t include Passantino’s comment.

Atlanta attorney Douglas Chalmers—who was Passantino’s law partner at Atlanta’s McKenna Long & Aldridge and whose practice focuses on campaign, government and election law—reviewed Cummings’ letter and the accompanying documentation that the committee made public, including the single statement attributed to Passantino.

Chalmers suggested that notes from that call “clearly indicate” Passantino was not making a proffer to government officials about Trump’s financial arrangement with Cohen.

Instead, Chalmers said Passantino “simply recited the legal point that the OGE regulations did not require disclosure of certain types of information.”

“All he did was make the observation that, under guidance provided by OGE, if payments for legal services are part of a revolving account, which is satisfied at the end of the reporting period, then liability is not to be disclosed,” Chalmers said.

“As the designated agency ethics officials for the White House, his Passentino’s job would have been to apply the OGE rules on the financial disclosure forms and to confirm their technical sufficiency,” Chalmers said. “In this case, the very small portion of the notes that reference Stefan make it clear that is all he did on the call.”

OGE regulations advise that legal fees only need to be reported as liabilities if they are overdue and exceed $10,000 during a single reporting period. Regulations also exempt from financial disclosure revolving charge accounts that do not exceed $10,000 in a reporting period.

“Stefan is as honest and ethical lawyer as you will find,” Chalmers added. “He is not only an excellent ethics attorney, he is an ethical attorney.”

On Thursday, Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, the House Oversight Committee’s ranking member, and Mark Meadows, R-North Carolina, who heads the House Freedom Caucus and is the ranking member of the House Subcommittee on Government Operations, defended Passantino and Dillon in a letter to Cummings. The two men said the allegations were “extremely unfair and unsupported.”

Jordan and Meadows accused the committee chairman of having “relied on cherry-picked passages of incomplete, one-sided handwritten notes by OGE staff” in leveling the false statement allegations against Dillon and Passantino.

“By making public assertions that these two lawyers made false statements—without even allowing them to respond—you have besmirched their reputations and have caused them irreparable professional harm,” the letter said.

The two legislators also requested information “other than the OGE-produced notes” memorializing Dillon’s or Passantino’s conversations with the government ethics staff. They also demanded to know whether Cummings spoke with Dillon, Passantino, or OGE staff before accusing the lawyers.

Jordan and Meadows also suggested that Cummings was “attacking Passantino and Dillon only because they represent the Trump Organization and the President.”