A trio of law firms that are helping the Republican Party fight to restrict voting access took millions of dollars in federal support from a program created to help small businesses avoid layoffs caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
The attorneys hired by the Republican National Committee on cases to restrict mail-in voting in Pennsylvania, Nevada and California all applied for and received loans as part of the Paycheck Protection Program, according to information released this week by the Small Business Administration.
The loans are completely forgivable — essentially free money — so long as the companies that receive them can show they used the money to keep people employed.
Porter Wright Morris & Arthur is the law firm representing the RNC, President Trump’s campaign and four GOP congressmen in a Pennsylvania lawsuit that aims to limit where voters can drop off absentee ballots for the November elections. That lawsuit seeks to disqualify any ballots that voters drop off at collection sites except for staffed county election offices, essentially shrinking the number of places where voters can drop off their mail ballots in person.
The firm, which has close ties to the Trump administration, received between $5 million and $10 million from the Paycheck Protection Program. The RNC paid the firm $25,000 in February (it hasn’t disclosed its disbursements from June, when the Pennsylvania lawsuit was filed).
In Nevada, the RNC has joined a lawsuit seeking to block an expansion of mail-in voting before the election. They’re fighting Democratic efforts to force the state’s Republican secretary of state to send mail ballots to all registered voters in the state, not just active voters who have participated in recent elections. One of the two law firms representing them in that case is Las Vegas-based Marquis Aurbach Coffing, whichreceived between $1 million and $2 million from the Paycheck Protection Program.
That firm has long worked for the GOP on election cases: In 2016 it defended the Nevada Republican Party in a lawsuit that claimed Republicans including Roger Stone encouraged poll-watchers to intimidate voters. The RNC paid the firm $23,000 in April and May of this year.
Dhillon Law Group is representing the RNC in its lawsuit against California’s plan to send mail ballots to every registered voter in the state. The firm received between $150,000 and $350,000 in PPP money. It also represented the state party in an attempt to ban the practice of “ballot harvesting,” where volunteers and campaigns can gather voters’ absentee ballots and return them themselves. Republicans see the process as an easy target for voter fraud.
The firm’s owner, Harmeet Dhillon, is a longtime GOP activist and former California state party vice chair who currently serves as a Republican National Committee member from California. The RNC has paid her firm more than $230,000 since last August for a variety of work, according to Federal Election Commission reports.
Dhillon has become a conservative star in recent years, and President Trump described her last year as “one of the leading First Amendment lawyers in the country.” She’s a regular on Fox News, and through her own law firm and her nonprofit have filed more than a dozen lawsuits seeking to undercut or overturn various restrictions that California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has ordered in attempts to stop the spread of COVID-19 in the state, challenging his orders for gun stores and churches to shut down as well as restrictions on beachgoers.
The lawsuits are part of a planned $10 million effort from Trump and the RNC to war against the expansion of ballot access, especially mail voting, ahead of the November election. That comes even in the face of coronavirus, which has upended election planning in states across the country and made it dangerous to vote in person.
Porter Wright said on its application that the money will let them retain 396 jobs, Marquis Aurbach Coffing said the money will let them retain 61 jobs, and Dhillon Law Group said the money will let them retain 14 jobs.
Porter & Wright Managing Partner Robert Tannous told VICE News in an email that the firm “cannot comment on the work we do for any of our clients. He didn’t respond to a follow-up question on whether any of that money had been used to keep on staff people who were working on the case for Trump and the RNC.
“We recognized early on that the COVID-19 pandemic had the potential to significantly impact our business.”
“We recognized early on that the COVID-19 pandemic had the potential to significantly impact our business, our workforce, and their families and as an essential business, we believe we had an obligation to our clients and staff to continue operations. We researched loan requirements, discussed with our own legal counsel and financial lender and decided to apply for a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan,” Tannous said. “The PPP loans were intended to keep a company’s workforce on the payroll instead of sending them to the unemployment line, and that is exactly what this loan has allowed our firm to do. In addition, we cannot comment on the work we do for any of our clients.”
The RNC sidestepped questions about whether they were concerned about any ethical questions about firms on their payroll getting federal money.
"Despite Joe Biden and the Democrat Party's hypocritical smears of the Paycheck Protection Program which has saved 51 million jobs, President Trump continues to be laser focused on the Great American Comeback,” RNC spokesman Steve Guest said in a statement.
Dhillon and attorneys at Marquis Aurbach Coffing didn’t respond to requests for comment, nor did spokesmen with the RNC and Trump’s campaign. It’s unclear whether any of the employees this money helped the law firms retain are working on the RNC’s current cases.
The firms aren’t the only ones with close ties to Trump that received PPP funding; more than a half-dozen firms with close ties to Trump got PPP loans, as the National Law Journal first reported. That includes Kasowitz Benson Torres. The firm, founded and run by Trump’s longtime personal lawyer Marc Kasowitz, received between $5 million and $10 million in federal money.
The three law firms applied for their loans through local lenders, and are just a few of the thousands of law firms received PPP loans. That list includes nearly a quarter of the country’s 200 highest-grossing firms, according to a review by the Wall Street Journal.
It’s not just Republicans that got big PPP loans. Other recipients include a number of left-leaning good government nonprofits on the opposite side of this legal fight, like the Campaign Legal Center and the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Boies Schiller Flexner LLP, the law firm of Democratic super-lawyer David Boies (famous for his roles in Bush v. Gore and the case that legalized gay marriage and notorious for representing Harvey Weinstein and Theranos) is another major recipient.
The Florida Democratic Party even received a loan, before being shamed into returning the money.
The Paycheck Protection Program was created with bipartisan support to help small businesses keep their employees on their payrolls as states were forced to shutter their economies to combat the spread of the coronavirus. But while it has helped keep millions of people employed, the program has generated controversy as a number of large and well-funded companies cashed in on free money as mom-and-pop stores struggled to receive loans.
“Big businesses, the wealthy, Trump’s cronies and pals, they’ve been the big winners,” former Vice President Joe Biden said Thursday during an economic speech in Pennsylvania. “Main Street, mom-and-pop businesses — they didn’t get the money.”
Cover: People wait to cast their votes at a polling station in Santa Clarita, California, on May 12, 2020. (Photo: MARK RALSTON/AFP via Getty Images)