In an arrangement prominent ethics experts say is without precedent and potentially illegal, the White House is referring questions for senior presidential adviser Stephen K. Bannon to an outside public relations agent whose firm says she is working for free.
Alexandra Preate, a 46-year-old New Yorker and veteran Republican media strategist, describes herself as Bannon's "personal spokesperson." But she also collaborates with other White House officials on public messaging and responses to press inquiries. It was Preate who responded when the Center for Public Integrity recently asked the White House Press Office questions about Bannon.
Preate, however, is not employed by President Donald Trump’s administration or paid by the federal government.
The unorthodox setup means Bannon, Trump's chief strategist, is potentially violating the Antideficiency Act, which provides that federal employees "may not accept voluntary services for [the] government or employ personal services exceeding that authorized by law."
The revelations about Preate's work are the latest controversy to embroil the White House Communications Office, which is reeling from a series of high-profile resignations, firings and leadership changes in recent days.
To be sure, it's not uncommon for executive branch employees to hire personal lawyers who aren’t on the government's payroll, but who nonetheless advise their clients on government work-related matters. The difference is that personal lawyers don't step in to help the White House perform its official duties.
Preate, however, “appears to be organizing the administration's response to questions sent to the White House," said Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis and an expert in government ethics. "And the fact that other officials are responsive to her distinguishes this situation from the kind of activity a private lawyer would do."
Said Norm Eisen, ethics czar during the Obama administration: "She seems to be privy to government information, and she appears to be acting on behalf of a government entity, either Bannon or the White House Press Office. If she's doing it for free, then that is a potential violation of the Anti-Deficiency Act."
To date, no one has ever been convicted or indicted for violating the Anti-Deficiency Act, and most of the dozen or so violations reported each year result in little more than administrative penalties. Still, a "knowing and willful violation" of the Anti-Deficiency Act is a Class E felony, punishable by a "$5,000 fine, confinement for up to two years, or both."
As a private citizen, Preate is not subject to the restrictions imposed by the Anti-Deficiency Act, nor would she be liable for any potential violations. White House officials, on the other hand, are subject to the act.
Preate, the White House Press Office, Bannon aides, the White House Counsel’s Office and the Department of Justice all refused to answer repeated questions from the Center for Public Integrity about Preate’s arrangement with the White House, whether she is working for free, and whether her role has been approved by government lawyers or ethics officials.