U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., chairman of the House Oversight Committee. AP file /Manuel Balce Ceneta
Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP
Photo: Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP

The Jolt: Atlanta lawyer who served in White House catches eye of U.S. House committee

When Atlanta attorney Stefan Passantino left the White House last year, there were some who congratulated him on a timely escape. But there’s a case to be made that he leaped out of the frying pan and into the fire.

On Friday, U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, sent a letter to the White House, restating his panel’s demand for documents associated with payments Donald Trump, as a presidential candidate, made to counsel/fixer Michael Cohen.

Cohen has confessed to buying the silence of two women who claimed to have had affairs with Trump.

The House committee’s interest has been further piqued, Cummings said, by evidence that two White House lawyers may have provided “false information” to investigators with the Office of Government Ethics, who were looking into the payments.

One of those attorneys was Sheri Dillon, Trump’s personal attorney. The other was Passantino, who had been the deputy counsel in charge of making sure White House staff complied with federal ethics laws.

Both Passantino and Dillon told investigators that the payments Trump made to Cohen were part of a retainer agreement between the two men, and so were not subject to disclosure under federal campaign finance laws.

Investigators were apparently skeptical, Cummings wrote in his letter to White House counsel Pat Cipollone. In notes, an OGE officer referred to the explanations as “evolving stories.”

“There is no indication in the notes that Ms. Dillion or Mr. Passantino informed OGE that they had never seen any such retainer agreement,” the congressman asserted.

Passantino joined the White House staff in January 2017, and left last summer to join the Michael Best law firm. He has offices in both Washington and Atlanta. With the exception of a December address to the Atlanta chapter of the Federalist Society, Passantino has made few public statements about his time with Trump.

A line in that letter from Cummings may explain why. The Maryland congressman noted that Passantino may have left the White House, but he now represents the Trump Organization. Read the letter here.

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Late last week, we speculated that a shift in policy by the Georgia chapter of Americans For Prosperity, part of the Koch network with access to large amounts of cash, meant that the AFP would not be financing any effort to defeat next month’s referendum to extend heavy MARTA rail into Gwinnett County.

This morning, the AFP confirmed that this indeed is the situation. The quote from Anthony West, the deputy state director:

“At AFP-GA, we look for the best opportunities to maximize our effectiveness and our grassroots activists and team will focus on areas where we feel we can make the greatest impact, like reducing overcriminalization. Moving forward, we will continue to seek out opportunities to unite broad coalitions of groups to remove barriers to opportunity and improve Georgian’s lives.”

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Earlier this morning, we told you that House Speaker David Ralston, R-Blue Ridge, is facing criticism after an AJC investigation that found he frequently delayed criminal court cases by claiming the dates interfered with his legislative duties. 

But as we have often said in this space, the dogs that don’t bark are sometimes just as important as the ones that do. What goes unsaid can be just as important as what’s said. This is the statement that arrived late Friday from the state Democratic party, via spokeswoman Maggie Chambers:

“These revelations show that Speaker Ralston has abused his power as a public servant to delay and deny justice for crime victims. As a legislator who has been given the trust of his constituents, he needs to remember his duty and put the needs of Georgia families before his own self-interest.”

“Needs to remember his duty” is a far cry from calling for Ralston’s resignation, a demand which -- so far as we know -- hasn’t passed the lips of any elected official in the state Capitol.

The Democratic party statement is a reminder that Ralston has been an occasional partner with Democrats in the Legislature on some particularly crucial issues. And we’ve a long way to go before this session of the General Assembly is finished.

The silence has struck some as concerning. WSB Radio’s Erick Erickson is currently pushing his followers to contact members of the House Ethics Committee, Democrats included.

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So you know that Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren held a rally in Gwinnett County on Saturday afternoon. But then she played tourist. An AJC eyewitness, enjoying a belated Valentine’s Day dinner at the Sun Dial restaurant atop the Westin Peachtree Plaza, was there when Warren walked in with Stacey Abrams, the former Democratic candidate for governor – who will have a very large say-so in next year’s presidential primary.

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One of the more vulnerable Republicans in the state Senate has competition: Gabe Okoye, the former chair of the Gwinnett Democratic Party, wrote Sunday on his Facebook page that he plans to challenge P.K. Martin for his Lawrenceville-based seat. Martin, first elected in 2014 with two-thirds of the vote, defeated a little-known challenger by roughly 3,000 votes in November. 

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Demonstrators plan to rally outside the Atlanta offices of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement at noon today to protest President Donald Trump’s demand for a state of emergency to finance his border wall. 

The groups expected to attend include the Georgia Alliance for Social Justice, the ACLU of Georgia and the Metro Atlanta Democratic Socialists.

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Speaking of that newly-declared national emergency, our WSB Radio colleague Jamie Dupree points out that we still don’t know which military construction projects the administration will divert funding from to pay for President Donald Trump’s wall. 

What we do know is that the White House plans to siphon $3.6 billion from “lower priority” projects. (To put that in perspective, Congress approved about $10.3 billion for military construction projects in the 2019 fiscal year.)

There are several ongoing military construction projects in Georgia. We’ve identified eight that were funded over the last two years at Fort Benning, Fort Gordon and Robins Air Force Base, ranging from a $10 million commercial vehicle visitor control facility at the latter to a $99 million cyber instructional facility at Gordon.

It’s unclear how much of that money has already been locked up in the contracting phase, but it’s possible that multiple projects could be affected, which would put several local GOP officials in a political bind.

Most are publicly backing Trump’s effort to circumvent Congress for his wall money, but some of those same lawmakers have previously championed those military construction projects. (Without earmarks, such projects are one of few remaining ways that members of Congress can guide money toward their districts.) 

One thing they can apparently rest easy about: Money to finish the deepening of the Port of Savannah

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It looks like we’ll be hearing more from U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, R-Monroe. The former radio host has been named “communications chair” of the House Freedom Caucus.

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