The gift that keeps on giving
Massachusetts Lawyer Weekly | December 4, 2017
By Kris Olson
If you are a Republican official, candidate or operative accused of a misdeed, be it sexual assault or cavorting with foreign adversaries, be forewarned: A Massachusetts attorney has made it his mission to ensure that you do not escape the scrutiny of every last state and federal authority he can find.
J. Whitfield Larrabee’s crusade began in June 2016, when the Brookline lawyer learned that the Donald Trump Foundation had donated $25,000 three years earlier to an organization working to assist the reelection of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. Bondi’s office dropped its investigation of complaints against Trump University soon thereafter.
The official explanation was that Bondi’s New York counterpart, Eric Schneiderman, filed a lawsuit on behalf of 5,000 consumers nationwide, obviating the need for the Florida AG to pursue the matter.
Larrabee initially filed three complaints with the Florida Bar, the state’s Election Commission and its Ethics Commission.
“I sent those out, and that was going to be the end,” he says.
However, he also shared the reports with a reporter at the Miami Herald, where a friend used to work. Before Larrabee knew it, stories about the complaints had appeared in about 100 newspapers.
“From that, I learned that I’ve got a good way to speak up and influence events, say Larrabee, whose “day job” entails representing employees, whistleblowers, med-mal victims and families in wrongful-death cases.
Eventually, Larrabee would file about a dozen complaints with state and federal authorities in connection with the Trump University matter alone.
Among the additional complaints were appeals to the Florida and New York AGs, asking them whether either party had violated their states’ bribery laws.
Trump’s election has added exponentially to Larrabee’s self-imposed workload. There have been state-bar complaints against Attorney General Jeff Sessions, former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, current Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore and former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort, among others.
Manafort is also one of six lobbyists named, along with Idaho Sen. James Risch and California Congressmen Dana Rohrabacher and Ed Royce, in a complaint to the Federal Elections Commission, alleging a scheme in which Larrabee and his fellow complainants say the elected officials accepted illegal contributions from the Ukraine Party of Regions and a “secretive” Belgium-based group, the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine.
That matter is still pending, but, Larrabee says “it’s likely people will be charged in that case.”
In addition to the complaints he has already filed, Larrabee says he has a “significant backlog” of cases that he intends to bring against officials in Trump’s administration and campaign.
Had Trump’s been a more traditional Republican administration, Larrabee doubts he would have been spurred to go to such great lengths. What disturbs and motivates him is his belief “that a form of irrational extremism had found a home in the Republican Party.”
“In particular, I was alarmed that Trump and many Republican politicians engaged in climate-change denial, supported voter suppression laws, promoted extraordinary income inequality, scapegoated immigrants, tolerated the birther attacks on President Obama, and embraced white supremacists,” he says.
As a result, he plans to continue to campaign “against individuals and officials who I believe are having a corrupting effect on our democracy.”
Larrabee will do so, even if his efforts occasionally meet with disappointing results, he says. For example, his complaint to the Connecticut bar about Manafort was sent to a county grievance panel, which determined that there was no probable cause to pursue bar discipline against him. This, despite the fact that Manafort has been charged with laundering millions of dollars through overseas shell companies as part of the ongoing investigation into possible collusion between Russia and the Trump campaign being conducted by Robert S. Mueller III.
Larrabee’s complaint was filed long before the indictments of Manafort and longtime associate Rick Gates were handed down. Larrabee speculates that practical considerations may have come into play, specifically the challenge the Connecticut bar counsel would have had conducting an investigation in which a lot of the information may be located in Ukraine.
Other times, Larrabee is more willing to accept an adverse decision, such as the ruling by the Florida Ethic’s Commission that Bondi had not violated state law. Local officials know their law better than he does, he figures, and he felt his complaint at least had been taken seriously and investigated fully.
Larrabee has also formed a political action committee, through which he says he will be advocating on behalf of or against candidates in the 2018 and 2020 elections.
Attuned to the political process and government since his youth, Larrabee now considers himself an “activated citizen” upon learning the extent to which one who knows how to navigate the legal system can exert political influence.
“We lawyers can play an important role in resisting the present attacks on our democratic institutions if we choose to exercise our power, he says.”