Politics

Pence donors, allies helped finance vice president's legal defense fund for Mueller probe

Key Points
  • Many of Vice President Mike Pence's longtime donors and allies in the business world helped back a legal fund intended to help him defend himself during special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe.
  • The fund, established by his former chief of staff, Jim Atterholt, spent just under $480,000 in 2019 on legal counsel for Pence, according to the vice president's latest financial disclosure report.
  • Donors include longtime Pence advisor Martin Obst and Indiana Pacers owner and Simon Property Group co-founder Herbert Simon.
Vice President Mike Pence listens during a briefing n the Oval Office of the White House on May, 28, 2020.
Brendan Smialowski | AFP | Getty Images

Many of Vice President Mike Pence's longtime donors and allies in the business world helped back a legal fund intended to help the Indiana Republican defend himself during special counsel Robert Mueller's Russia probe.

The fund, established by his former chief of staff, Jim Atterholt, spent just under $480,000 in 2019 on legal counsel for Pence, according to the vice president's latest financial disclosure report.

The filing, first made public Tuesday by the government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, shows that the fund was used for the "legal expenses incurred by Michael R. Pence (the sole beneficiary) in connection with the 2016 presidential election and related matters." The document notes that Pence himself did not solicit any of the contributions. 

USA Today reported last year that Pence's allies were using the fund to help pay for the vice president's legal fees during Mueller's investigation into whether Russia interfered with the 2016 election. The report last year did not say who had given to the organization. Pence, at the time, had retained Richard Cullen, a partner at McGuireWoods.

Yet, the newly released filing reveals for the first time who financed the defense operation. People who gave to the fund have a history of backing political groups with ties to Pence himself.  

Atterholt, who organized the effort, said he created the fund because he didn't believe that Pence had the financial means to pay for his legal fees. 

"I believe the Vice President is a decent and honorable person, but he is not someone of great financial means. I started the trust because I believe significant legal bills should not be the cost of public service," Atterholt said in an email to CNBC. 

A spokeswoman for Pence declined to comment, and Cullen deferred any questions about his work to the vice president's office. 

One of the donors listed on the form is Martin Obst, Pence's longtime political advisor, who gave $20,000.

Herbert Simon, co-founder of shopping mall developer Simon Property Group, is also among the donors. He also owns the Indiana Pacers basketball team of the NBA. Simon donated $100,000 to the fund and contributed at least $15,000 to Pence's 2012 successful Indiana gubernatorial campaign, according to data from the National Institute on Money in Politics. Simon, who also has a history of giving big to Democrats, previously contributed to Pence's brother Greg Pence's congressional campaign, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. 

Ronald Weiser, a $50,000 supporter of the Pence defense fund, is founder of Michigan-based firm McKinley Inc. Two years before donating to the fund, Weiser donated $200,000 to a pro-Trump super PAC. 

Michael Hayde and Laura Khouri, executives at investment firm Western National Group, combined to give $200,000 to the defense fund. They have previously given millions to Republican causes in the 2020 election cycle, according to the Orange County Register. Hayde gave Trump's reelection campaign $2,800 last year, the most an individual can give directly to a campaign. 

All the donors mentioned in this story did not return a request for comment. 

Pence was linked to Mueller's investigation through the actions of former national security advisor Michael Flynn. Pence reportedly never met with Mueller but willingly provided documents to the special counsel. 

Pence also reportedly sent his lawyer to meet with Mueller to assure him he was willing to cooperate during the inquiry. Mueller wrapped up his probe in March 2019.

Flynn resigned from the Trump administration after telling Pence that he had not discussed U.S. sanctions against Russia with Russian officials weeks before the president took office, only for the former national security advisor to later acknowledge that he indeed may have had those conversations.

After he left the White House and during the Mueller probe, Flynn was accused of lying to the FBI and pleaded guilty. But he eventually withdrew his plea. The Justice Department moved to have his case dismissed, while a U.S. appeals court recently ordered a lower court to drop the case. 

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