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Pro-Trump legal fund making payments, but won't say who's benefiting

Washington(CNN) A legal fund set up to help current and former Trump campaign and administration officials pay legal bills stemming from investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 campaign has begun making payments to law firms, according to an Internal Revenue Service filing.

But the legal fund is declining to identify individuals who are benefiting from it, which could include current government officials. The fund is largely powered by five- and six-figure donations from GOP megadonors with ties to President Donald Trump.

Patriot Legal Expense Fund Trust doled out $122,529 to two law firms, according to the IRS filing, including an $8,438 payment to the firm representing Keith Schiller, the President's former longtime bodyguard and aide. The payments are listed only as "legal consulting" on the IRS form. The fund's spokesman declined to comment on the legal fund's payments.

That law firm, Schertler & Onorato LLP, also represents Sam Patten, a lobbyist who pleaded guilty to acting as an unregistered foreign lobbyist for illegally obtaining $50,000 in tickets to Trump's inauguration on behalf of a Ukrainian oligarch.

Schiller and Patten's attorneys did not respond to requests for comment.

Another $114,091 went to Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, a large Washington law firm and lobbying outfit, which has ties to several witnesses involved in special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation. The firm did not respond to a request for comment.

The payments were made during the last financial quarter of the fiscal year and are the first of the fund's payments to legal firms to be publicly disclosed. The firm's first filing, during the second quarter of the year, did not list any payments to law firms. The firm's third-quarter disclosure is not yet available on the public IRS portal, a delay likely due to a paper filing.

Larry Noble, the former general counsel of the Federal Election Commission and senior director of the Campaign Legal Center, said it's likely the payments were made to cover legal expenses of individuals involved in the Mueller investigation or related congressional investigations, but that it is impossible to know based on the fund's public disclosure.

"It's minimal disclosure," Noble said. "We simply don't know who the money is going to. We have no way of knowing whether or not the people who are receiving the benefit of this are in violation of any ethics rules."

A source familiar with the legal fund's operations said former campaign officials could submit invoices for legal bills to the fund to request financial support, a process the source said has been facilitated by Trump campaign officials.

In a document sent for review to the Office of Government Ethics earlier this year outlining its operations, the Patriot legal fund indicated it would draw clear boundaries between the Trump campaign and the fund. It said none of the fund's "members" -- individuals who can vote on the its activities -- nor its manager could be employed by the Trump campaign.

The Patriot legal fund has not publicly disclosed the identities of those "members," but the fund is deeply intertwined with the Trump campaign. The fund's manager, former Rep. Nan Hayworth, a Republican, is not employed by the Trump campaign.

The legal fund's custodian of records is the Trump campaign's treasurer Bradley Crate, whose firm Red Curve Solutions is listed as the mailing address for the legal fund. The fund's spokesman is Mark Serrano, who also serves as a Trump campaign spokesman. Neither responded to requests for comment.

The fund's latest filing also shows that it continues to be largely powered by top-dollar Republican donors with ties to the President.

Anthony Lomangino, a waste management executive based in south Florida who is also a Mar-a-Lago club member, donated $150,000 in the last financial quarter, according to the filing.

The donation follows a $100,000 donation from Trump friend and real estate developer Geoffrey Palmer; $50,000 from casino magnate Phil Ruffin, another Trump friend; and $25,000 from Harold Ham, an oil and gas executive who was an early Trump supporter and donor.