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Members Continue to Tap Campaign Accounts for Legal Help in Ethics Cases

Chris Maddaloni/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Rep. Spencer Bachus is facing an ethics fallout from some short-term investments he made a few years ago. His campaign paid a law firm $250,000 in the first quarter of 2012.

The re-election campaigns of Members involved in ethics inquiries and other legal matters paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorneys’ fees during the first quarter of the year to help sort out the lawmakers’ affairs, depleting valuable financial resources heading into an increasingly competitive general election cycle.

Because Members can tap their campaign accounts to pay for legal fees as long as the work is connected to their official duties, campaign finance reports filed at regular intervals with the Federal Election Commission can provide a window into which lawmakers are facing ethics probes, lawsuits and investigations — and the stage and seriousness of the claims.

Some of the heftiest outlays during the first three months of this year came from the re-election campaign of Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), which paid the law firm Gibson Dunn & Crutcher $250,000.

The spending by the Bachus for Congress Committee indicates that the House Financial Services chairman is still facing fallout from short-term investments he made during the financial crisis. The Washington Post reported in February that the independent Office of Congressional Ethics began a preliminary investigation late last year into whether Bachus broke insider trading laws, focusing on suspect trades listed on his annual financial disclosure forms that earned him more than $34,000. The next week, Bachus filed paperwork to establish the Spencer T. Bachus Legal Expense Trust to help defray the costs associated with the probe.

“With the Congressman’s duties as a Member and his obligation with the primary, it has taken time to ensure that the legal trust fund is in working order and in full compliance,” spokesman Tim Johnson said of the campaign’s outlays in the interim.

The bipartisan ethics panel doesn’t comment on cases under review, but if it recommended that the Ethics Committee investigate the matter further, an announcement should occur within the next month.

The re-election account of Rep. John Fleming (R-La.) made another sizable payment to the law firm Patton Boggs last quarter, shelling out $20,005 on top of the $32,051 it paid the firm during the final quarter of 2011. Fleming amended three years worth of financial disclosure forms in late October, adding positions he held at a variety of organizations, including Fleming Subway Restaurants and a series of limited liability companies.

Though Fleming’s office declined to comment on whether the expenditures were related to the amended disclosure forms, similar omissions landed Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) before the OCE and the House Ethics Committee. The two lawmakers use the same law firm.

Buchanan’s campaign did not report any notable attorneys’ fees during the first quarter, but it did pay a company that specializes in preparing documents for law firms more than $17,000 for “document copies,” according to its FEC filing.

The legal expenses of Rep. Geoff Davis (R-Ky.) more than tripled last quarter, when his campaign reported paying the law firm Covington & Burling about $25,000 for legal consulting.

Davis’s office said the fees were related to the discovery that the campaign’s former treasurer had made about $7,000 worth of unauthorized disbursements.

“The committee self-reported to the FEC, engaged counsel, notified law enforcement, changed treasurers and updated internal controls,” Chief of Staff Armstrong Robinson said in an email to Roll Call. “Counsel is assisting with the campaign committee’s interactions with the FEC on this matter.”

A now-closed OCE investigation of Rep. Mike Thompson’s (D-Calif.) work on behalf of wine growers in his district cost his campaign another $16,000 during the first quarter of this year. The campaign paid Perkins Coie the sum in addition to the $25,000 it paid the firm at the end of December.

The investigation stemmed from a New York Times report last summer detailing Thompson’s efforts to have the Treasury Department create a designated wine region — called an appellation ­— in the first  district, where Thompson also owns a vineyard. Spokesman Austin Vevurka said the OCE voted 6-0 in Thompson’s favor and that the matter needed no further review.

The Rush Holt for Congress campaign also made a sizable outlay related to a now-closed legal matter last quarter, paying $37,000 to the law firm Genova Burns Giantomasi & Webster. Holt’s office confirmed the payment was related to what the New Jersey Democrat previously told Roll Call was a “nuisance suit” brought by a disgruntled former campaign worker.

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