Former Acting U.S. Attorney General Matt Whitaker earned $400,000 last year to advocate for President Donald Trump to issue pardons and commutations, Roger Sollenberger revealed in a December 1 scoop for the Daily Beast. The conservative group FreedomWorks, a 501(c)4 organization that does not disclose its donors, reported the expenditure to the IRS as covering “consulting services” for Whitaker, an independent contractor.
That role raises a number of ethical questions for Whitaker. He was directly involved in White House clemency negotiations possibly as late as Trump’s last full day in office, but never registered as a lobbyist while advocating for pardons—and FreedomWorks never named clemency issues in any of its 2020 lobbying reports.
Trump issued a handful of clemency actions in February 2020 for people whose applications had been championed by FreedomWorks. It’s not clear how much time Whitaker spent on this work after taking a leadership role, or how many pardon or clemency applications he urged the administration to approve.
During Trump’s final weeks in office, the White House listed Whitaker as an advocate of commuting the sentence of Daniela Gozes-Wagner, who was serving time for health care fraud, and granting a conditional pardon to Stephen Odzer, who had committed extensive bank fraud.
Kedric Payne, senior director of ethics for the Campaign Legal Center, told Sollenberger, “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.”
Common Cause vice president of litigation Paul S. Ryan had a similar reaction to the news: “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.”
Whitaker joined the U.S. Justice Department in 2017 as chief of staff for then Attorney General Jeff Sessions. He became acting attorney general in November 2018, even though some scholars considered the appointment unconstitutional. Whitaker’s questionable actions in that position included trying to shut down a criminal investigation of a Turkish bank and meeting with Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner on Marine One while special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe was ongoing.
After leaving the Justice Department in early 2019, Whitaker lined up several part-time gigs and occasionally headlined Republican events in Iowa. He also appeared as a commentator on some conservative television programs and published a book in 2020 that one critic described as a “fawning defense” of Trump.
He appeared to be laying the groundwork for another campaign for U.S. Senate. (Whitaker finished fourth in the five-way IA-Sen primary in 2014.) But Senator Chuck Grassley’s re-election bid halted those prospects.