As the jurors deciding whether former Sen. John Edwards broke campaign finance law to conceal an extramarital affair returned from a long weekend to resume deliberations, a sitting Senator was forced to respond to seemingly similar allegations.
Sen. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.) acknowledged that his ex-wife, Kimberly Vertolli, accused him of hiding payments made from his re-election account during the 2010 election cycle to his then-girlfriend, Dodie McCracken. The story was first reported by the Chicago Tribune early Tuesday.
Vertolli, in a complaint she filed with the Federal Election Commission late last year, contends that Kirk’s campaign intentionally obscured $143,000 it paid McCracken, a public relations professional who previously worked in Kirk’s Illinois office, because she received the money as a subcontractor for an ad agency with which the campaign regularly did business.
Though Kirk’s and Edwards’ cases each involve lawmakers who are alleged to have dealt with fallout from disintegrating marriages by covertly using campaign funds to bolster the position of new women in their lives, experts told Roll Call that legally the two situations could not be more different.
“It’s almost a mirror image,” Caplin & Drysdale attorney Joseph Birkenstock said when asked to compare the Kirk case to that of Edwards.
The jurors in the Edwards trial have for seven days been deliberating whether he engaged in a conspiracy to violate campaign finance law by failing to tell the FEC that two wealthy donors had given him nearly $1 million during his 2008 presidential bid that was later used to cover up an extramarital affair with Rielle Hunter, with whom he has a child.
Vertolli has contended that Kirk deliberately tried to omit McCracken’s name from campaign finance reports filed with the FEC because she was paid by the Patterson Group.
“The first difference that strikes me is that these dollars were accounted for on Kirk’s FEC report and being raised under the federal limits but being spent in a way that wasn’t obvious from the report,” Birkenstock said.
Though Vertolli also benefited financially from Kirk’s re-election bid, the complaint did not mention her own arrangement with Kirk’s campaign, and she told the Tribune that there was nothing improper about the payments she received.
The Mark Kirk for Senate campaign paid Athens & Sparta Counsel — a firm formed by Vertolli and run out of her home in Alexandria, Va. — $40,000 in January 2011 for a retainer and 83 hours of “legal research,” according to FEC filings.
Kirk’s office on Tuesday dismissed Vertolli’s allegations as an attempt to settle a personal vendetta.
“While Senator Kirk and Ms. Vertolli divorced amicably three years ago and she actively supported Mr. Kirk’s 2010 Senate campaign, Ms. Vertolli has since filed a baseless complaint consisting of bitter personal attacks and is attempting to involve a federal agency in a divorce settled 36 months ago,” spokesman Eric Elk said. “We responded to the FEC on December 31, 2011, and are confident that the Commission will dismiss the complaint.”
In its December response, Kirk’s campaign argued that the payments to McCracken did not have to be disclosed because only checks written to primary contractors must be reported.
Though attorneys agreed with that interpretation, one told Roll Call that by combining a campaign’s duty to report all receipts and disbursements with a statute criminalizing making false statements to the federal government, an argument could be made that the intentional obfuscation of campaign disbursements is a crime.
Still, campaign committees have “a lot of latitude” in how they set up and pay for the services of their vendors, one expert said.
FEC spokesman Christian Hilland confirmed that the commission had received Vertolli’s complaint but said it would not make a public statement on the case until the matter is resolved.
After the commission closes a case, it posts the original complaint and any related documents on its website within 30 days.
According to an annual report it files with Congress, the FEC closed 145 cases during its last fiscal year in an average of 10.1 months per case. Nearly 90 percent of the commission’s matters were closed within a 15-month period.
Kirk suffered a stroke in January and was released from a rehabilitation center earlier this month. He is continuing his recovery as he resumes Congressional duties.