WASHINGTON — Matthew G. Whitaker, the acting attorney general, was paid more than $1.2 million in the past few years by a group active in conservative politics that does not reveal its donors, according to financial disclosure statements released Tuesday and other documents.
The disclosure raised questions about who Mr. Whitaker’s financial patrons had been before he joined the Justice Department last year and whether he might have any undisclosed conflicts of interest. And it highlighted the prominence of so-called dark money groups that pursue political agendas and employ members of both parties without being required to make public the source of their funding.
Mr. Whitaker worked for nearly four years as the executive director of the group, the Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust, also known as FACT, before being tapped as chief of staff for Jeff Sessions, then the attorney general, in September 2017. Mr. Whitaker became acting attorney general this month after Mr. Sessions was forced out.
The group provided the overwhelming majority of his income since at least 2016, according to the filings released Tuesday by the Justice Department.
During the period covered by the filings, the next largest source of income for Mr. Whitaker, a lawyer, was $103,000 from a law firm in which he was a partner. He was also paid $15,000 by CNN, where he appeared on air as a legal analyst, and was often identified as the executive director of FACT.
In appearances on the network, he defended President Trump and criticized the special counsel’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election and connections between Russia and Mr. Trump’s team. Those appearances caught the eye of the White House, according to people who worked with the administration at the time.
Mr. Whitaker also faced new questions on Tuesday about donations to his unsuccessful 2014 campaign for a United States Senate seat from Iowa. Mr. Whitaker’s campaign committee received four donations totaling $8,800 this year, a few months after he joined the Justice Department, records show.
Executive branch officials are generally prohibited by a federal law, the Hatch Act, from knowingly soliciting or accepting campaign donations.
As acting attorney general, Mr. Whitaker now oversees the Russia investigation led by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III, raising concerns on both sides of the aisle about his willingness to allow the investigation to proceed unfettered.
FACT has raised nearly $3.5 million since its inception in 2014, according to tax filings, which show that the group’s largest single expense was Mr. Whitaker’s salary.
There is very little publicly available information about FACT’s financing.
DonorsTrust, a conservative foundation that allows other conservative foundations to mask their giving, provided FACT’s seed funding — $600,000 donated in 2014 — but the original source of that donation is not clear.
FACT applied for a grant in April 2016 from Freedom Partners Chamber of Commerce, a group funded by the network of conservative donors led by the industrialist brothers Charles G. and David H. Koch, according to people familiar with the grant request. The people said that the request was not fulfilled.
FACT is registered under a section of the tax code — 501(c)3 — that allows groups to accept unlimited donations from people, corporations and unions without publicly disclosing the donors’ identities.
Such groups, and those registered under section 501(c)4, which allows more overt campaign activity, have played increasingly prominent roles in American politics in recent years. That has prompted concerns from transparency advocates about donors funneling money into politics to secretly finance their agendas.
That should not be a concern at all when it comes to Mr. Whitaker, said his law partner of eight years, William R. Gustoff.
“I don’t see Matt Whitaker ever playing the role of anybody’s bag man or errand boy,” Mr. Gustoff said. He said that Mr. Whitaker “might possibly” know the identities of FACT’s donors, but added that Mr. Whitaker “would do what he thinks is right regardless of whether somebody funded an activity he was involved in or not.”
Mr. Gustoff, who serves on the board of FACT, submitted the grant request to the Koch-related group. He said FACT “was well received” by Republican donors, who were eager to fund watchdog efforts.
Mr. Gustoff and his law firm have been key participants in Mr. Whitaker’s political and public policy efforts.
Another partner at the law firm, Kendra Arnold, has worked for the group for years, and became its executive director when Mr. Whitaker left to join the Trump administration.
Mr. Gustoff was also the treasurer for Mr. Whitaker’s 2014 Senate campaign in Iowa. A Justice Department spokeswoman referred questions about the recent campaign donations to him.
The four donations to the “Whitaker for U.S. Senate” committee — three of $2,600 and one of $1,000 — came within days of each other at the end of January and the second day of February, federal election records show. They were the first to be made to the account in just over two years.
In addition to the Hatch Act’s prohibition on political activity by most executive branch employees, a separate Justice Department memo restricts political activity by its personnel even further, in the hopes of keeping the agency as far from partisan politics as possible.
Mr. Gustoff signed the campaign’s filings with the federal election committee.
“The donations were not solicited by me or by Matt,” Mr. Gustoff said. He could not explain why they suddenly came about long after the end of the campaign.
“The checks came in. I, as the treasurer, deposited the checks, and I retired the debt that I knew I could without talking to Matt,” he said. “I don’t talk to Matt about the campaign.”
A provision of the Hatch Act allows officials to raise money to retire campaign debt. Mr. Whitaker lent his campaign $50,000 in the 2014 race, and the campaign has yet to repay him for the majority of it.
But the campaign’s only expenditure in 2018 so far was $228 to reimburse for “data services,” and another $500 to his old law firm for renting office space. There is no indication he sought to repay himself with the donations.
“The filings make clear that his campaign committee took donations and made expenditures in 2018 after he took office,” said Austin Evers, the executive director of the liberal watchdog group American Oversight, adding that the donations appear to violate the Hatch Act.
Officials at the permanent Office of the Special Counsel, which polices Hatch Act violations, did not respond to calls for comment.
Three of the donors are well known in political circles in Iowa. One of them, Gary Kirke, a wealthy casino owner, donated $2,600. His business partner, Michael J. Richards, made a donation for the same amount a few days earlier, records show.
During the period when Mr. Whitaker was registered as a lobbyist in Iowa, he was registered to lobby for Mr. Kirke’s company.
A woman who answered the phone at the firm hung up right after hearing a New York Times reporter was on the line. “He’s not going to comment on anything — thank you very much,” she said.
Another donor, Cameron Sutton, has served on the board of the conservative Heritage Foundation. He did not respond to a call seeking comment. Leon Shearer, the fourth donor, also did not respond to a call for comment.