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Trump Organization hires former White House ethics lawyer to handle Hill investigations

The Trump Organization has hired a former White House lawyer to assist with congressional inquiries into Pre...

Posted: Jan 12, 2019 3:14 PM
Updated: Jan 12, 2019 3:14 PM

The Trump Organization has hired a former White House lawyer to assist with congressional inquiries into President Donald Trump's business interests.

Stefan Passantino, the former White House deputy counsel who was responsible for overseeing compliance with ethics and conflict-of-interest rules, will handle its responses to Democratic investigations, Passantino informed Congress in a letter sent to the House Oversight Committee on Friday and obtained by CNN.

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Passantino left the White House last year to join Michael Best & Friedrich, a Milwaukee-based firm headed by former White House chief of staff Reince Priebus.

Passantino will work closely with the Trump Organization's chief general counsel Alan Garten and chief compliance counsel George Sorial, according to sources familiar with the arrangement.

Passantino plans to recuse himself from issues he worked on while in the White House, according to one of the sources.

Passantino registered his representation as part of the Trump Organization's response to a December request for information concerning foreign payments to the company from House Oversight Chairman Elijah Cummings. Friday was the deadline.

The Trump Organization has responded to requests from various members of Congress in the past, according to Passantino's letter. But Democrats, who now hold subpoena power, have said the responses so far have not been sufficient.

Democrats have made it a priority to investigate whether foreign governments are currying favor with the administration by doing business with the President's family company in violation of the constitutional ban on such payments to the president, known as emoluments.

Unlike his predecessors, Trump has declined to release his tax records or fully divest himself from his businesses, which are currently overseen by a trust and run by his eldest two sons, Don Jr. and Eric Trump.

The emoluments issue is also being pursued by the District of Columbia and Maryland, which have sued in federal court over the President's interest in the Trump International Hotel. The Justice Department has moved to stop the case from proceeding.

In his letter, Passantino reiterated many of the same points Trump Organization has made in prior congressional correspondence, including the idea that payments from foreign governments don't qualify as emoluments because they are fees for services provided.

After receiving Passantino's letter, Cummings said it was "largely a rehash of arguments and information previously provided."

"We will follow up as appropriate with the Trump Organization to seek the information that we need," Cummings said in a statement to CNN.

While serving in the administration, Passantino was tasked with overseeing the White House ethics program, which included certifying financial disclosures for White House staff. In addition to recusing from matters he handled in that role, he will not be communicating with the executive branch, the source added.

In November, CNN reported that Trump Organization executives were preparing for the investigations, including sending a reminder to staff to preserve records, according to a person familiar with the conversations. They also discussed bringing on additional outside counsel, that person said, particularly a firm with expertise in government investigations.

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