How exactly is Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) paying for his probably doomed-to-fail lawsuits against the anonymous owners of several satirical Twitter accounts that frequently lampoon(ed) him by, for example, posing as a cow with the capacity for human thought, language grammar and typing?
Thats’s what Campaign Legal Center would like to know. In a 218-page complaint filed Wednesday morning with the Office of Congressional Ethics (OCE), the nonprofit government accountability watchdog asks for an official investigation into the source of the funds used to prop up Nunes’s multiple lawsuits—which target media organizations as well as Twitter trolls—and which likely cannot be paid for on his congressional salary.
Per that complaint:
Representative Nunes retained an attorney who represents him in several defamation lawsuits in various courts where he seeks a total of nearly $1 billion in damages. House rules prohibit a Member from receiving free legal services, unless the Member establishes a Legal Expense Fund (“LEF”). According to the House Legislative Resource Center, Representative Nunes has not filed any of the required reports to establish an LEF.
“Representative Nunes’s overt involvement with the highly-publicized lawsuits threatens to establish a precedent that the [LEF] regulations no longer apply to Members,” the complaint continues. “Although Representative Nunes is entitled to legal representation and he may pursue any legal action to protect and defend his interests, he must comply with House rules. An OCE investigation will preserve Representative Nunes’s legal right to counsel while upholding well-established House rules and precedent.”
Defamation lawsuits are notoriously expensive—and mounting/maintaining six separate defamations at once would cost quite a bit.
The complaint goes on to allege that Nunes could only be mounting several such costly legal challenges if he’s receiving free or reduced-price legal services—or if his his legal team is working on a contingency basis. As of now, however, Nunes has declined to reveal the exact nature of his legal arrangements—and that’s an obvious transparency issue for a person housed and fed on the public’s dime.
If Nunes is getting free legal help or help at a discounted rate, the complaint says, he’d have to disclose that information by way of an LEF—otherwise the California Republican is the proud owner of several illegal gifts and in “blatant violation of House [ethics] rules.”
And, CLC’s complaint notes, a contingency fee situation wouldn’t really account for all of the legal actions and advocacy taken by Nunes’s attorney Steven Biss so far.
“Mr. Biss sent a letter to Representative [Ted] Lieu threatening to bring an ethics complaint against him,” the complaint reads. “An ethics complaint will not result in a monetary award that could support payment under a contingency fee agreement.”
But, even if Biss is working for his client in the off-chance the lawsuits succeed, Nunes would still be bound to report that.
Again the complaint:
If such an exception existed, lawyers could easily disguise pro bono legal services as contingency fee agreements. Based on the nature of the extensive legal services that Representative Nunes continues to receive, the OCE and Committee on Ethics should review any alleged contingency fee agreement.
“Those outside of Congress may not completely grasp how conspicuously abnormal it is for a congressman to bring this many high-profile lawsuits without a trace of payment for his lawyer,” CLC’s Senior Ethics Director Kedric Payne, who previously worked in the Office of Congressional Ethics, told Law&Crime via email. “Members of Congress from both sides of the aisle who routinely pay significant legal fees with legal expense funds or their campaigns should be the most disturbed by Representative Nunes’ apparent disregard of the rules. Without any explanation from Rep. Nunes, this activity begs the question of what is he actually hiding from the public.”
Also of note: The CLC OCE complaint against Nunes is, of course, being cheered on by attorney Joseph Bondy—who is currently representing indicted Ukrainian-Floridian Lev Parnas.
[image via Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images]
Editor’s note: this article has been amended post-publication to include a quote and for clarity.