Three Iowa connections in Trump's final batch of pardons (updated)

Shortly after midnight on January 20, the White House announced that President Donald Trump had issued 73 new pardons and 70 commutations.

Two people pardoned with less than twelve hours remaining in Trump's term have ties to well-known figures in Iowa politics.


Eric Branstad, who was state director for Trump's 2016 campaign in Iowa and later worked in the Commerce Department, was on a long list of people who urged the president to pardon Elliott Broidy, according to the White House news release.

Best known as a top fundraiser for Trump's 2016 campaign, inaugural committee, and the Republican National Committee, Broidy pleaded guilty in October 2020 to "conspiring to violate foreign lobbying laws as part of a covert campaign to influence the administration on behalf of Chinese and Malaysian interests." Lobbyists for foreign entities are required to file disclosures with the U.S. Department of Justice, but Broidy did not do so.

Broidy had been leveraging his "access to and perceived influence with the President and his administration," with the goal of "stopping a criminal investigation into massive fraud at a Malaysian investment fund and advocating for the removal of a Chinese billionaire living in the US," CNN's Kara Scannell reported in October, citing court filings. He was scheduled to be sentenced in February.

It's not clear why Branstad intervened on Broidy's behalf. They may have become acquainted during the 2016 campaign. Mara Hvistendahl and Lee Fang reported for The Intercept in October 2020 that "Matchpoint, Eric Branstad’s LLC, collected $79,250 [in 2016] from the Republican National Committee and the Trump 2016 election campaign." Eric Branstad neglected to list that income on his public financial disclosure report in 2017, when he worked at Commerce.

Most of the Intercept's investigative report focused on Branstad's ties to lobbyists and interest groups while at Commerce, as well as his lobbying work since leaving the federal government.

Branstad was mentioned briefly in a New York Times article from July 2018. Kenneth P. Vogel, Mark Mazzetti, Maggie Haberman, and David D. Kirkpatrick examined how Broidy and former Trump campaign official Rick Gates "worked together to pursue lucrative opportunities in Mr. Trump’s Washington." Here is the relevant passage:

In one instance, Mr. Broidy sought assistance from Mr. Gates in securing an endorsement from the Commerce Department for Circinus’s efforts to win lucrative defense work from the Romanian government, in partnership with its state-owned defense company, Romarm.

Mr. Gates told Mr. Broidy and Circinus officials in an email that he intended to flag the request for “my contacts at Commerce,” including “in the secretary’s office.” He relayed talking points about why Circinus deserved the endorsement to one such contact, Eric Branstad, who had served as senior White House adviser to the Commerce Department until January, and before that had worked on the inaugural committee with Mr. Gates.

Mr. Branstad, the son of the Trump administration’s ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, relayed Circinus’s request to the agency staff overseeing Romania, according to someone who worked with the agency.

The Commerce Department eventually provided an endorsement, which is commonly sought by American companies trying to do business with foreign governments. But it is unclear what role, if any, Mr. Gates’s efforts played.

Unlike several other former Trump campaign staffers, Gates didn't get a presidential pardon, presumably because he had cooperated "extensively" with prosecutors before serving a 45-day prison sentence in 2019.


Another beneficiary of Trump's final-day generosity was Paul Erickson. According to the White House statement, the president's former adviser Kellyanne Conway advocated for this pardon. The news release added,

Mr. Erickson’s conviction was based off the Russian collusion hoax. After finding no grounds to charge him with any crimes with respect to connections with Russia, he was charged with a minor financial crime. Although the Department of Justice sought a lesser sentence, Mr. Erickson was sentenced to 7 years’ imprisonment—nearly double the Department of Justice’s recommended maximum sentence. This pardon helps right the wrongs of what has been revealed to be perhaps the greatest witch hunt in American History.

"A minor financial crime" is a strange way to describe two decades of "defrauding investors in various schemes." Erickson redirected hundreds of thousands of dollars from investors to his own account.

Aside from steadfast Trump loyalists like Senator Chuck Grassley, few people would claim there was no justification for investigating the Trump campaign's collusion with Russian operatives.

Erickson became nationally known through Maria Butina, who was investigated and prosecuted by special counsel Robert Mueller's team. While Erickson and Butina were romantically involved, he helped her gain access to conservative organizations including the National Rifle Association.

A 2019 report by Democratic staff on the U.S. Senate Finance Committee explored the NRA's Russia entanglements in depth. Bleeding Heartland published excerpts from that report, showing how Erickson and Butina targeted Pete Brownell, the CEO of Grinnell-based firearms retailer Brownell's. He was the NRA’s vice president and incoming president in 2015, when Erickson and Butina visited Brownell in Iowa and sent emails dangling opportunities for his company. Brownell eventually agreed to lead an NRA delegation to Russia in December 2015. While there, he met with sanctioned individuals and used his position as an NRA officer to explore business deals.

As the White House statement noted, Erickson was never charged with a crime related to his work with Butina on behalf of Russian interests.


I missed one Iowa connection. Former Acting Attorney General Matt Whitaker was among those supporting a pardon for Stephen Odzer, who was sentenced to 18 months in prison after pleading guilty in 2005 to "defrauding three New York banks of more than $16 million."

I haven't been able to find any direct link between Whitaker and Odzer, who has long supported Republican causes. Before accepting a job in the U.S. Justice Department in 2017, Whitaker earned about $1.2 million as president and executive director of the Foundation for Accountability & Civic Trust. That foundation does not disclose its donors; a large portion of its funding came from the conservative group "Donor Trust," which raises money mostly from anonymous donors.


Whitaker was also among the prominent Republicans who encouraged Trump to commute the sentence and restitution order for Daniela Gozes-Wagner, who had been incarcerated since 2017 for crimes committed as "a mid-level manager for a company that improperly received Medicare and Medicaid funds."

DECEMBER 2021 UPDATE: Roger Sollenberger reported for the Daily Beast that the dark money group Freedom Works paid Whitaker $400,000 in 2020 for "consulting fees." He never registered as a lobbyist, raising ethics concerns.

Kedric Payne, senior director of ethics who specializes in lobbying law at nonpartisan watchdog Campaign Legal Center, said the available evidence suggests that “extensive paid lobbying” went unreported.

“Federal law requires disclosure from those who are paid to lobby for pardons,” Payne explained. “This matter raises red flags because there appears to be extensive paid lobbying, but no evidence of lobbying registration. The public has a right to full disclosure about who is lobbying our public officials.”

Paul S. Ryan, vice president of litigation at government watchdog Common Cause, pointed out that the laws surrounding lobbying for pardons specifically are fuzzy, and before Trump’s final months relatively untested. But he also noted that a number of Trump lobbyists saw fit to disclose that work.

“Other lobbyists tied to Trump have reported massive income lobbying the administration for pardons. Any failure by Whitaker to disclose hundreds of thousands of dollars received to lobby the Trump administration warrants close scrutiny,” Ryan told The Daily Beast.

Are you aware of other Iowa connections among the final group of people who received pardons or commutations from Trump? If so, please contact Laura Belin with tips.
Appendix: Excerpts from the late-night White House news release on Trump's final batch of pardons and commutations

Elliott Broidy – President Trump granted a full pardon to Elliott Broidy. Mr. Broidy is the former Deputy National Finance Chair of the Republican National Committee. This pardon is supported by Representative Devin Nunes, Representative Ken Calvert, Representative Jack Bergman, Representative George Holding, Ambassador Ric Grenell, Bernie Marcus, Malcolm Hoenlein, Eric Branstad, Tom Hicks, Saul Fox, Lee Samson, Rabbi Steven Leder, Dr. Alveda King, Father Frank Pavone, Major General Clayton Hutmacher, Lieutenant General Bennet Sacolick, Mr. Bruce Brereton, Rabbi Steven Burg, Rabbi Pini Dunner, Rabbi Meyer May, and Rabbi Mordechai Suchard. Mr. Broidy was convicted on one count of conspiracy to serve as an unregistered agent of a foreign principal. Mr. Broidy is well known for his numerous philanthropic efforts, including on behalf of law enforcement, the military and veterans programs, and the Jewish community.

Paul Erickson – President Trump has issued a full pardon to Paul Erikson [sic]. This pardon is supported by Kellyanne Conway. Mr. Erickson’s conviction was based off the Russian collusion hoax. After finding no grounds to charge him with any crimes with respect to connections with Russia, he was charged with a minor financial crime. Although the Department of Justice sought a lesser sentence, Mr. Erickson was sentenced to 7 years’ imprisonment—nearly double the Department of Justice’s recommended maximum sentence. This pardon helps right the wrongs of what has been revealed to be perhaps the greatest witch hunt in American History.

Stephen Odzer — President Trump granted a conditional pardon to Stephen Odzer. This pardon is supported by former Acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker, Sigmund “Sig” Rogich, Jason Greenblatt, Michael Steinhardt, Wayne Allyn Root, Salvador Moran, the Aleph Institute, and numerous members of Mr. Odzer’s religious community. Mr. Odzer pled guilty to conspiracy and bank fraud, for which he was sentenced to 18 months in prison. Numerous individuals testify to his substantial philanthropic and volunteer activities. His philanthropic endeavors include providing personal protective equipment to front-line workers in New York City hospitals; visiting sick children in hospitals; and donating religious materials to prison inmates and U.S. Service Members around the world. He has also dedicated resources to support and build synagogues in memory of his late cousin who was kidnapped and killed by Muslim terrorists while in Israel. The pardon requires Mr. Odzer to pay the remainder of his restitution order.

Excerpts from White House news release of December 23, 2020:

Daniela Gozes-Wagner  President Trump commuted the sentence and restitution order imposed upon Ms. Gozes-Wagner. Numerous former law-enforcement officials, including U.S. Attorneys General Michael Mukasey, Ed Meese, Ramsey Clark, and John Ashcroft; Acting Attorneys General Peter Keisler and Matt Whitaker; an FBI Director, two U.S. Solicitors General, and scores of U.S. Attorneys, among others, have supported commutation for Ms. Gosez-Wager, arguing that she received a disproportionate sentence.  The Aleph Institute also supports her commutation.

Ms. Wagner is a single mother of two children who has been in federal custody since her 2017 conviction for health care fraud and money laundering. Ms. Gozes-Wagner worked as a mid-level manager for a company that improperly received Medicare and Medicaid funds. Of the individuals in Ms. Gozes-Wagner’s case, Ms. Gozes-Wagner was the only defendant to go to trial.  She received a sentence of 20 years’ imprisonment and was ordered to pay $15.2 million in restitution. This sentence was significantly more severe than the sentences imposed on the other defendants, several of whom played a more central role in the fraud. Her sentence was criticized by numerous former high-ranking U.S. officials as disproportionate to her crime.

Top image: President Donald Trump signing a bill on December 27, 2020 at Mar-a-Lago in Florida. Official White House photo by Shealah Craighead.

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