Former Breitbart.com CEO and senior White House adviser Stephen K. Bannon’s current press office arrangement may be a violation of federal law, according to a report from Time.com.
Bannon is referring all media inquiries to public relations representative Alexandra Preate, 46, whose company says she is working for free. Preate is a former Republican strategist and calls herself Bannon’s “personal spokesperson,” but she also partners with White House employees to craft messaging and responses to press questions.
Ethics experts say that because Preate is not an actual White House or Trump administration employee and is not on the federal government’s payroll, she is potentially in violaton of the Anti-Deficiency Act, which says federal employees “may not accept voluntary services for [the] government or employ personal services exceeding that authorized by law.”
Christina Wilkie of the Center for Public Integrity wrote for Time, “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.”
It’s not uncommon for government employees to hire outside personnel like attorneys, but its virtually unheard-of for one of these external hires to step in and perform official duties for the White House.
Law professor Kathleen Clark of Washington University in St. Louis said Preate “appears to be organizing the administration’s response to questions sent to the White House” and “(T)he fact that other officials are responsive to her distinguishes this situation from the kind of activity a private lawyer would do.”
“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,” said Norm Eisen, the Obama administration’s ethics czar.
While no one has ever been convicted or sentenced for violating the Anti-Deficiency Act, knowingly and willingly violating it is considered a Class E felony, punishable by a “$5,000 fine, confinement for up to 2 years or both.”
Preate is not a government employee and may not be punishable under the Act, but White House employees are liable.
Wilkie said, “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.”
The arrangement came to light when the Center for Public Integrity sent an inquiry to the White House and was told that an answer would be forthcoming. However, the response didn’t come from the White House Press Office, but rather a call from Preate, who said she was calling “for Steve.”
“From July 11 through July 13, Preate called the Center for Public Integrity 18 times about the story. During these conversations, Preate would only agree to speak off the record, which is why the Center is not reporting on the content of the calls,” wrote Wilkie.
George W. Bush’s deputy press secretary Tony Fratto said that this arrangement presents a host of problems, given that Preate is “an uncoordinated messaging channel that isn’t being overseen by the White House communications office.”
The burning question is who is paying Preate, said Eisen.
“If Preate’s firm works for Breitbart, then is this arrangement part of a continuing relationship of some kind between Breitbart and Bannon?” he said. “Is Breitbart paying for this?”