Legal Law

“Who is the Real Me?” – JONATHAN TURLEY

“Who was the real me? I can only repeat: I was a man of many faces.”

Those words by author Milan Kundera could well have been written for Kevin Morris, a critical figure in the unfolding Hunter Biden scandal.

Morris was largely unknown to most people until he emerged as the Democratic donor who reportedly paid Hunter Biden millions to handle his unpaid taxes and maintain his lavish lifestyle. The Hollywood lawyer and producer portrayed himself as a good Samaritan on a biblical scale — a good man who simply found a desperate stranger on the road and gave him more than $5 million.

His counsel, Bryan M. Sullivan stated that “Hunter is not only a client of Kevin’s, he is his friend and there is no prohibition against helping a friend in need, despite the inability of these Republican chairmen and their allies to imagine such a thing.”

The statement captures the problem for Morris. It is increasingly hard to determine what Morris was at any given moment: Democratic donor, lawyer, friend. Indeed, that problem that some of us have raised for months.

Lawyers are not supposed to pay the bills of their clients. Specifically, California Bar Rule 1.8.5(a) states that “[a] lawyer shall not directly or indirectly pay or agree to pay, guarantee, or represent that the lawyer or lawyer’s law firm will pay the personal or business expenses of a prospective or existing client.” They are required to maintain clear representational boundaries. This is also now the subject of a new bar complaint filed by a conservative legal group this week.

Friends have described Morris as a “rule-breaker” and admit that his relationship with Hunter raises eyebrows. “Certainly it’s not careful, but he’s a gunslinger,” one told the Los Angeles Times. “This is how he rolls.”

But the legal ethics rules are designed to avoid gunslinging generally and ambiguity specifically.

Hunter calls him both his lawyer and his “brother.” Lead counsel Abbe Lowell observed, “I have never in any of my representations of any other client — other than someone who is an immediate family member of one of my clients — known anyone who is like Kevin.”

When the relationship began, Morris was playing the role of loyal Democratic donor.

He was introduced to Hunter at a 2019 political fundraiser by another producer and Democratic deep pocket, Lanette Phillips. Soon thereafter, Morris was giving Hunter copious amounts of money and legal advice. That would include reportedly paying off Hunter’s long-delinquent taxes before criminal charges were filed. It also included paying for Hunter’s lavish lifestyle.

Morris may be most eager to avoid the label “democratic donor” because these payments could be viewed as an unreported campaign donation. Morris was brought in during Joe Biden’s campaign for president. Then, on February 7, 2020, Morris flagged how the taxes represented a “considerable risk personally and politically.” He seems to have sought to resolve that political liability by paying off the taxes and calling it a “loan.”

Those “loans” would continue, and Morris insists that it was all standard “loan” stuff. Except he is not a bank. He was repeatedly referring to Hunter as his “client.”

It is also important that these millions are treated as loans because, if they are actually gifts, they could create a new tax problem. Hunter has to declare such “gifts.”

Few would view Hunter as a good risk for a loan, given his history of stiffing a wide array of businesses and associates. Indeed, he reportedly even faced a complaint over failure to pay for alleged high-end prostitutes. He was even accused of using a credit card connected to his father to pay off an alleged Russian call-girl. Even the art dealer who recently sold Hunter’s art reportedly testified that Hunter never reimbursed him for the costs of the shows.

That art adds an interesting twist to the mysterious role of Morris. Recently, art dealer Georges Bergès blew away White House claims that Hunter had been barred from knowing the names of purchasers under a comprehensive ethics system. He admitted that Hunter knew the identity of 70 percent of the purchasers.

It was not hard. Despite news reports of buyers flocking to buy the art, it turns out it was largely Morris who bought the art.   Notably, however, Morris only reportedly paid Bergès’ 40 percent commission on the $875,000 purchases. It is not clear whether Morris used the sales to wipe out part of the loan debt.

That would be a clever way to treat the money as a loan, if it were used for that purpose. You simply have Hunter crank out dubious pieces of art and arrange for an ally to throw art shows in New York. You then have media allies write how buyers were “floored” by Hunter’s talent.

Finally, you pay the commission on the excessive prices for the art while writing off the value of the art as a type of in-kind payment of the loan. While many mocked at the Pablo Picasso-level pricing of Hunter’s art pieces (some works approached half a million dollars), those inflated prices would be useful to count as direct or indirect payments for the loans.

We still do not know how these purchases or the loans were treated, and whether Morris was acting as a donor, friend, or lawyer. Now, Morris is adding a new role to this pile of identities, reportedly supporting a new movie on Hunter Biden.

Call it “Mr. Biden Goes to Washington,” an effective rewrite of Frank Capra’s classic, only the corrupt establishment apparently wins.

In the movie, a young novice appointed to the U.S. Senate fights the corruption of Washington, where his senior senator has sold access and influence to James Taylor, a wealthy businessman. Taylor scoffs at the notion that the establishment can be challenged. After all, they control the media, and what the public will read and hear. As Taylor assured the senior senator, “I’ll make public opinion out there within five hours! I’ve done it all my life…You leave public opinion to me.”

Morris is still fighting to shape public opinion, and, in Hollywood, movies make reality.

Morris “makes public opinion,” and the media can be expected, again, to assist in those efforts.

Many in Washington believe that Hunter’s stunts in holding a press conference defying his subpoena, and later crashing his own contempt hearing, were literally made-for-television moments. These scenes were captured on film and will no doubt be featured in the new film on his heroic struggle.

The question is the audience for the film. Clearly, in the Beltway, audiences are likely to be sobbing with emotion as Hunter fights against inquiries into influence peddling. They will cheer at Joe Biden’s moment channeling John Wayne, when he declared, “No one f**ks with a Biden.”

However, most audience members would not have felt the same thrill if, at the end of the original movie, the corrupt Sen. Joseph Paine and the wealthy Taylor had emerged as the victors, fighting off the do-gooders and “boy rangers” supporting Jimmy Stewart’s main character.

The question is also who would play Morris — or more accurately, how many would have to play this “man with many faces.”

Jonathan Turley is the J.B. and Maurice C. Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at the George Washington University Law School.

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