Lawyers Repeatedly Flagged Illicit Politicking by Dem Legal Strategy Group

Hacked emails reveal rocky start to DNC’s new Democratic Lawyers Council

Debbie Wasserman Schultz
Debbie Wasserman Schultz / AP
July 26, 2016

Democratic Party lawyers had to step in repeatedly to prevent illegal or prohibited political fundraising by a new Democratic National Committee group designed to coordinate legal strategy with hundreds of friendly attorneys, internal documents show.

Multiple proposed fundraising pitches by the new Democratic Lawyers Committee (DLC) invoked the names of high-ranking administration officials in what would have been violations of federal laws and White House policies against political activity by administration officials, according to emails between the group’s top staffers and their attorneys.

The hacked emails, released by the group WikiLeaks last week, provide a detailed narrative of the DLC’s formation and its hectic first few months, which saw celebrity attorney Gloria Allred micromanaging the group’s self-described "propaganda," a senior DNC staffer admonishing colleagues for nearly spoiling its rollout with illicit fundraising asks, and DNC staffers pretending to be then-chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz on email in order to land a venue for a high-dollar fundraiser.

"The stated goal of the DLC is to organize the legal community and [we] must arm them with the information, contacts, and inspiration they need to provide significant support for the Democratic Party’s fight to maintain control of the White House and help elect Democrats up and down the ballot in 2016," according to talking points circulated internally.

The perks that attorneys get for their involvement with the group depend on the sums that they donate. For $500, they get "regular email updates including talking points, and the Party’s response to current events."

Those who give $150,000 annually, DLC’s top donor tier, get seats on the DNC’s national finance committee, VIP tickets to exclusive DNC events, and "access to special activities and invitations."

"DLC members will have access to insider knowledge of the DNC’s campaign strategy, which allows members to be more effective in their efforts on behalf of the President and his successor," according to the group’s donor pitch.

The official DLC rollout took place in early May, when DNC fundraising staffers Clayton Cox, Max Marshall, and Jordan Vaughn set up a conference call designed to raise money for the new effort and recruit member attorneys.

They landed former Obama campaign aide Stephanie Cutter and top White House political operative David Simas to speak on the call. But the effort immediately ran into legal trouble when a DNC finance official asked attorneys at Perkins Coie, a leading Democratic law firm, to review its invitation.

"Per White House policy, a WH official (Simas) cannot be included on a page that contains a link to a DNC solicitation," Perkins Coie attorney Ruthzee Louijeune told DLC staffers in an email on the evening of May 2. The call was scheduled for the next day.

The invitation also identified Cutter and DNC finance co-chair Robbie Kaplan, who would speak on the call, by their professional associations: Kaplan with the New York law firm Paul, Weiss, and Cutter as a founding partner of the firm Precision Strategies.

Under federal law, corporations cannot use their resources to raise political funds. Endorsing a fundraising pitch is considered an illegal in-kind contribution. After a phone call with the DNC, Louijeune told staffers to strike Cutter’s and Kaplan’s corporate titles "to avoid triggering prohibited corporate facilitation."

Staffers removed the titles from the conference call invitation. But Louijeune was forced to step in once again when a proposed email blast promoting the call identified Kaplan and four other attorneys involved in the DLC by their official titles at their respective law firms.

Scott Comer, the chief of staff for DNC’s finance division, admonished DLC staff for what had been a sloppy lead-up to the group’s big unveiling.

"This blast process needs to be started way sooner next time. This was way too loosey goosey," he told Cox and Vaughn. "We almost ran into some big legal issues that would have had Perkins and the WH pissed at us."

Despite the rocky rollout, DLC staffers hailed its opening conference call as a major success. More than 500 lawyers called in, Vaughn told a colleague. By May 6, three days after the call, DLC had more than 150 paying members and had already brought in $58,000.

"We have gotten off to a solid start," Vaughn wrote.

Just days later, Perkins Coie lawyers were once again forced to roll back DLC fundraising language that ran afoul of prohibitions on political fundraising by administration officials.

DLC staff planned a fundraising event for the group at Robbie Kaplan’s home to build on their momentum. It would charge at least $1,000 per person and feature celebrity attorney Gloria Allred and White House official Tina Tchen.

They crafted two email blasts to promote the event. One would be sent under Kaplan’s name, and the other under Allred’s. According to emails from Perkins attorneys, both contained improper or illegal fundraising solicitations.

The proposed Allred email started off with an attack on Donald Trump, which Louijeune warned could be perceived as an illicit effort to earmark DLC donations for Trump’s defeat.

The draft also included a link to a fundraising page on the DNC’s website. It appeared right below Tchen’s name despite Louijeune’s previous guidance that such links cannot appear on the same page as the name of a White House official.

"Tina Tchen is an Assistant to POTUS and Chief of Staff to FLOTUS, thereby triggering the Hatch Act," Louijeune told Comer. "We cannot include Executive Branch employees on an event invite that contains solicitation. Please check for this before you add names to any invitation."

Comer did not immediately begin checking. The next day Louijeune had to strike language from Kaplan’s draft email blast that explicitly asked for money directly below Tchen’s name.

"You have to remove Tina Tchen's name because there is a hard ask in the e-mail (‘help raise much-needed funds’) and WH officials covered by the Hatch Act cannot engage in soliciting funds," Louijeune reminded him.

While Louijeune made sure the messages were legally compliant, Allred herself was making numerous tweaks to the email language that would appear under her name. She emailed Vaughn four times with slight changes to the language of the email.

"Gloria has taken it on herself to edit our propaganda," Vaughn quipped in an email to Comer.

As the date of the planned fundraiser approached, DLC suddenly had to find a new place to host it. Kaplan "can't host at her home. Have any attorneys that might be interested in hosting?" Vaughn asked DNC finance director Zach Allen.

Allen suggested reaching out to New York corporate tax attorney and high-dollar Democratic donor Jodi Schwartz. To make the ask more appealing, Allen suggested sending it from a "dummy" account for Debbie Wasserman Schultz, making it look like the request was coming directly from her.

"We'd like Jodi Schwartz to host this DLC Reception at her home and think the ask will be most effective if it appears to come from DWS herself," Kaplan told Wasserman Schultz’s assistant.

"I forgot to mention while we were together [at a meeting in New York] that the Democratic Lawyer's Council (DLC) recently formed and we are hosting our kickoff event in New York on May 31st," said the email under Wasserman Schultz’s name. "I wanted to reach out because I would love for you to be a part of this effort. Would you be comfortable hosting the event at your home?"

"Every dollar raised would count for you," the email assured Schwartz.

It was signed, "Your friend, Debbie."