WASHINGTON — What do an American Kremlin sympathizer, a doctor with ties to Hindu nationalists and George Clooney’s neighbor have in common?

They’re all bankrolling U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard’s attempt to pay down her legal debt from an ill-fated lawsuit against Hillary Clinton.

Gabbard, who decided against another term representing Hawaii in Congress in favor of a long shot presidential run, created a legal expense trust fund in May, according to paperwork filed with the House of Representatives. Gabbard dropped out of the presidential race in March, but not before racking up tens of thousands of dollars in legal bills connected to the $50 million lawsuit she filed against Clinton in January, according to Federal Election Commission records.

Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is collecting donations in a legal defense fund to help pay for attorney fees and costs associated with a failed lawsuit against Hillary Clinton. Nick Grube/Civil Beat/2020

Legislators can create these kinds of funds to pay for litigation, as long as it’s related to their duties in Congress or on the campaign trail.

The legal fund gives donors who’ve already reached their FEC maximum to a candidate another way to give money. It also allows Gabbard to fundraise even though she’s not running for office and frees her up to spend the remaining roughly $165,000 left in her presidential campaign account on other things.

The fund will help her pay bills related to the suit “against Hillary Clinton for defamation over her statements relating to Tulsi Gabbard and her campaign on the podcast Campaign HQ with David Plouffe, and other legal expenses that have arisen or may arise” around that issue, according to the paperwork, dated May 5. The fund paperwork doesn’t mention another suit Gabbard filed against Google, which has since been thrown out.

Gabbard’s suit against Clinton alleged that the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee defamed the Hawaii congresswoman by implying during the October podcast appearance that Gabbard was being groomed by the Kremlin to run as a third-party candidate. Gabbard dropped the lawsuit in May, but made clear she still thinks it has merit. Gabbard’s spokeswoman did not respond to a request for comment.

As of the end of July, Gabbard had raised a total of $23,502 for the legal fund from eight donors, according to a quarterly report filed in the Capitol. Donors include some of Gabbard’s most ardent, and most controversial, supporters, including a few who appear to have their own axe to grind against Clinton or their own reasons to defend Russia.

Among the first donors is Sharon Tennison, a prominent American defender of Russian President Vladimir Putin and critic of Clinton’s foreign policy stance against Russia. Tennison founded the Center for Citizen Initiatives, a California-based nonprofit that has tried to thaw relations between the U.S. and Russia going back to the days of the Soviet Union, in part by shuttling Americans there for organized trips.

The 84-year-old Tennison has argued that Putin is a strong and good leader who has been vilified and misunderstood by the West, which is why her several donations to Gabbard’s presidential campaign drew scrutiny last year. Tennison also keeps an active blog on the group’s website, where she has promoted articles critical of Clinton’s foreign policy toward Russia and dismissive of claims Putin boosted President Donald Trump’s campaign, an opinion Gabbard herself has said she shares.

“I see no relationship between my donations to Tulsi and my relations with Russia, Putin or anyone else,” Tennison said in a statement. “I am one of Tulsi’s many dedicated supporters due simply to her politics.”

Also on the donor roll is Howard Gold, a progressive activist and heir to the 99 Cents Only Stores fortune. Gold, who donated $4,000 to the legal fund, made headlines in 2016 when he held a dueling fundraiser for Sen. Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign the same day Gold’s neighbor, George Clooney, hosted Clinton for a high-dollar fundraiser. The event included protesters throwing 1,000 $1 bills at Clinton’s motorcade as she arrived at Clooney’s Hollywood Hills mansion.

Two donors have ties to the Hindu American Foundation: The group’s cofounder, Mihir Meghani, and a San Francisco sports medicine practitioner, Anuruddh Misra. Meghani, a California emergency room physician, is one of Gabbard’s most reliable long-term donors, having given close to $40,000 to Gabbard’s campaigns going back to 2011. Gabbard became the first practicing Hindu ever elected to Congress in 2013 and has maintained a very close relationship with the Hindu American Foundation.

Meghani’s donations received scrutiny during Gabbard’s presidential bid because Meghani has ties to right-wing Hindu nationalists, namely the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, a paramilitary group that has been accused of stoking anti-Muslim sentiment and has been periodically banned in India. Meghani, who did not respond to a request for comment, founded a University of Michigan student chapter of a Hindu group under the RSS umbrella in the 1990s.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi began his political career in the RSS. Gabbard enjoys a close relationship with Modi, while Clinton was accused as Secretary of State and during her presidential campaign of being too tough on Modi, or at least taking too long to normalize relations with him. Before becoming prime minister, he was banned from the U.S. for allegations of complicity following Hindu extremist attacks against the Muslim minority in the Indian state of Gujarat, then under Modi’s control.

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi appeared together in New York City in 2014. U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard

Gabbard also took donations from decidedly non-militant Hindus, including two followers of the late Dada J.P. Vaswani, a nonsectarian Hindu spiritual leader who endorsed and had a close relationship with Gabbard. Ashok Lalwani, president of the Sadhu Vaswani Center of New Jersey, gave the maximum of $5,000, as did his wife Sangeeta.

Gabbard has long maintained a support base made up of people from all over the ideological spectrum. That’s the case with the legal fund, too.

Linda Copeland, a pediatrician from Sacramento, donated $300 and has a long history of donating to progressives like Sanders and ex-Rep. Dennis Kucinich.

Manhattan lawyer Andrew Rosenberg, on the other hand, has donated mostly to Republicans, apart from giving $2,000 to the legal fund and more than $5,000 to Gabbard’s presidential campaign. He donated several times to House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy in 2016 and 2017, when McCarthy was second-in-command under Speaker Paul Ryan, and also donated small sums to Sen. Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential bid.

In fact, even the person who manages the legal fund has been a donor to Gabbard. Miami attorney J.B. Harris has donated more than $10,000 to Gabbard since 2015. Trustees are not allowed to donate to a candidate while serving as trustee, but past donations aren’t an issue.

Notably missing from the donor list: Anyone from Hawaii.

An Unusual Use Of A Legal Fund

Government ethics experts said the use of a legal expense fund to finance this kind of litigation is very unusual, even if Gabbard is within the bounds of congressional ethics rules. Members of Congress usually use these funds to defend themselves against lawsuits from others, or to pay for a defense in campaign finance or congressional ethics cases.

“A defamation lawsuit, that type of offensive use of a trust, is unusual,” said Bryson Morgan, a former investigator at the Office of Congressional Ethics. “I don’t think I’d go so far as saying unprecedented, but I think it’s unusual, certainly not common. But it does fit within the scope of the permissible use of the trust.”

Brett Kappel, a Washington, D.C.-based campaign finance lawyer, agreed that the use of the fund for the Clinton lawsuit is permissible. House ethics rules allow a fund to pay legal fees arising out of a member’s status as a candidate or elected official and even a civil matter bearing on an individual’s reputation or fitness for office, he said.

“Obviously, a defamation lawsuit would be a civil matter to protect an individual’s reputation,” Kappel said. “That said, this is a unique situation. I do not recall another case in which a Member created a legal expense fund in order to pay legal fees to initiate litigation.”

“I do not recall another case in which a Member created a legal expense fund in order to pay legal fees to initiate litigation.” — Campaign finance lawyer Brett Kappel

Gabbard already paid $50,000 from her presidential campaign in July to the law firm Pierce Bainbridge Beck Price & Hecht, which represented her in the case against Clinton. Her legal fund has not yet disclosed any expenditures, so it’s not yet clear how much more she has paid to the firm. After she leaves Congress at the end of this year, she will no longer be required to file disclosures with the House Ethics Committee, because former members of Congress are not under the committee’s jurisdiction.

The law firm Gabbard hired has fallen on hard times lately, plunging millions of dollars into debt. Both attorneys who represented Gabbard have moved on to other firms. Other high profile clients have included Michael Avenatti, Rudy Giuliani, Don Lemon and George Papadopoulos, a former campaign aide to President Donald Trump.

The firm is also representing Kyle Rittenhouse, the 17-year-old charged with shooting three people, killing two of them, during a night of protests in Kenosha, Wisconsin. The firm came under fire this week when John Pierce, a named partner at the firm, resigned from his position on a legal defense fund that has raised more than $700,000 to defend Rittenhouse.

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