Gary Shapley, the IRS agent who is expected to testify Wednesday about his claims that the Justice Department went easy on President Joe Biden’s son Hunter, says he is not affiliated with any political party or partisan organization. But Democrats contend the same can’t be said for some of the people who have taken up his cause.
Shapley is represented by Empower Oversight, which bills itself as a nonpartisan good government group, but is run by former Republican legislative staffers with long-standing GOP ties.
The group’s founder, Jason Foster, spent years attacking the Justice Department investigation into whether Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign coordinated with the Russian government. Its president, Tristan Leavitt, is a GOP candidate for West Virginia’s state House who boasts on his LinkedIn page about his investigations of Hillary Clinton.
Foster and Leavitt are veterans of Republican congressional oversight who have worked with a variety of good government organizations over long careers. But Democrats say they now are part of a little-scrutinized far-right ecosystem that has directed a barrage of criticism at federal law enforcement agencies as a Justice Department special counsel seeks to convict Trump on charges he mishandled classified documents and obstructed justice.
“The same group of MAGA lawyers work in close coordination with the same House Republicans to recruit and fund the same sorts of ‘whistleblowers,’ all as part of a campaign to protect Donald Trump,” said Rep. Jerry Nadler of New York, the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee.
Foster and Leavitt dispute that criticism.
“We did not recruit Gary Shapley,” they said in a statement to NBC News. “He decided to blow the whistle on his own. We regularly work with other whistleblower organizations whose staff have consistently given political donations to Democrats or worked for Democrats on Capitol Hill before working for nonpartisan whistleblower support groups.”
Recently, Empower Oversight has worked closely with House Republicans in championing two FBI agents who portray themselves as whistleblowers and who lost their security clearances over concerns about their sympathy to the Jan. 6 Capitol rioters. Democrats and other critics say they are not whistleblowers at all.
“What I see occurring on Capitol Hill reminds me of what Republicans did in the ’90s during the Clinton years,” said David Jolly, a former Republican congressman from Florida who is no longer affiliated with the party.
Jolly said the Justice Department’s negotiated plea was not enough for Republicans, who are convinced he is guilty of more serious crimes, regardless of what prosecutors found.
“One of the telltale signs,” Jolly added, is when partisan investigators “come out from the shadows to convince the country there is something to investigate when legitimate investigators have already closed things out.”
In their statement, Foster and Leavitt responded: “The work we do with whistleblowers is driven by our belief in that cause and the suggestion that we are doing it to help any presidential candidate is absurd, baseless, and false. More importantly, it is not fair to Gary to judge him or his case by anything other than the merits of the facts and the evidence.”
Shapley, who is scheduled to appear before the House Oversight and Accountability Committee on Wednesday, has said that U.S. Attorney David Weiss of Delaware was blocked from bringing more serious charges against Hunter Biden than the ones included in a recent plea deal — an assertion Weiss has repeatedly disputed.
Shapley has also accused Attorney General Merrick Garland of lying under oath when he said Weiss had full autonomy in the case — a charge Garland denies.
Shapley said in an interview with the House Ways and Means Committee that his IRS team was not allowed to take investigative steps that could have implicated President Biden, and that he believes Hunter Biden should have faced felony tax charges, not just the misdemeanors to which he has agreed to plead guilty.
Two former senior officials involved in tax cases at the highest levels during the Trump administration — including one Trump appointee— told NBC News there are multiple safeguards to ensure that a case is handled without political influence, including multiple levels of review by career officials inside both the IRS and the Justice Department.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity because they are prohibited from discussing a case that was pending during their tenures, they each said Shapley appears to be turning a routine dispute about the handing of a case into allegations of political machinations.
Charlie Dent, a former Republican congressman who represented a swing district in Pennsylvania, says Shapley has sounded “very credible.” But, Dent added, “I would be very careful about associating myself with folks who have a hard partisan agenda. It could tarnish his ability to claim to be non political.”
Foster and Leavitt say they are not political activists, but supporters of anyone who blows the whistle on government misconduct.
Leavitt notes that he was appointed by President Biden to a seat on the Merit Systems Protection Board, which adjudicates federal workplace disputes. Both men say they have spent a career working with nonpartisan good government groups, and they have received praise in that community.
Foster and Leavitt point out that other Washington groups that support whistleblowers include former Democratic legislative staff.
“There is nothing wrong with working for Republicans or Democrats on the Hill and then working in the nonprofit, nonpartisan sector,” they said. “There are any number of people from both sides of the aisle who do it.”
Leavitt, a former staffer for the Republican majority on the House Oversight Committee from 2015 to 2017, also worked for Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa on the Judiciary Committee from 2011 to 2015, and for Bill Sali, a far-right Republican lawmaker from Idaho from 2007 to 2008.
Foster spent two decades working for congressional Republicans, rising to chief counsel under Grassley on the Senate Judiciary Committee.
As ProPublica reported, he once published an anonymous blog under the handle “extremist” that equated homosexuality to incest and questioned whether waterboarding really amounted to torture. (He later apologized for the posts.)
In response to a question about the blog, Foster said ProPublica’s descriptions were “not accurate, fair, or representative summaries of the posts.”
“And the handle was an ironic, tongue-in-cheek reaction to hysterical labeling of mainstream right-of-center figures (particularly Chief Justice Roberts in the instance that led to using the handle for a time) as extremists when they clearly were not,” he added.
More recently, Foster has suggested that Hunter Biden should be prosecuted for his work as a high-paid board member of a Ukrainian energy firm.
Both Leavitt and Foster have forged careers often investigating Democrats.
In his Empower Oversight bio, Foster cites his work on the “Fast and Furious” gun scandal in the Obama administration and on exposing flaws in the Trump-Russia probe. On his LinkedIn page, Leavitt says he that investigated “Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server while Secretary of State and the FBI’s failure to recommend charges,” and “led investigation into conflicts of interest caused by Hillary Clinton fundraising for the political campaign of FBI Deputy Director Andrew McCabe’s wife.”
In supporting the FBI whistleblowers, Leavitt and Foster have found an ally in former Trump aide Kash Patel, who according to congressional testimony has donated to at least one of the FBI agents and to Kyle Serafin, another former FBI agent-turned-critic who posted on Twitter pictures of checks for $255,000 made out to two of the men. Serafin raised the money through a campaign on GiveSendGo, a conservative version of GoFundMe. One of the agents, suspended but still employed by the FBI, has said he is consulting lawyers about whether he can accept the money.
One of the FBI whistleblowers, Stephen Friend, has taken a job with the Center for Renewing America, a conservative think tank that employs Patel and Jeff Clark, the former DoJ lawyer whose phone was seized by federal agents as part of the investigation into efforts to keep Trump in power.
According to federal 990 tax forms, it shares a registration address, and has received $500,000 from, the Conservative Partnership Institute, a right-wing advocacy group led by Meadows and former Sen. Jim DeMint of South Carolina. The institute also employs Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who has supported Trump’s false claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 election.
In February, the institute hosted a “Congressional Oversight Boot Camp” for Republican Hill staffers. Leavitt, while still a member of the Merit Systems Protection Board, spoke at a panel entitled “Working With Outside Investigative Organizations,” according to records filed with the House clerk.
Two weeks later, Leavitt left the board to become president of Empower Oversight.
Dent says questions about the extent to which Hunter Biden profited from sweetheart deals — NBC News has reported that he was paid $11 million over five years by a Ukrainian energy firm and a Chinese businessman — are legitimate.
But, he said, “the more ideological zealous members of the (GOP) caucus tend to overreach. They will always grab more than they can chew, and I suspect that’s what may be happening here, too.”