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Legal Fees Show Who Is Spending on Defense

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Rep. Mike Thompson spent almost $25,000 on legal fees relating to an ethics investigation regarding his advocacy for grape growers in his district. The Office of Congressional Ethics determined there was no need for further review.

The campaign accounts of Reps. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.) and Mike Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.) paid tens of thousands of dollars when the lawmakers were investigated and cleared by the Office of Congressional Ethics last year.

Though the allegations against Thompson and Fitzpatrick had been raised in the press, the existence of ethics probes against the two lawmakers has not previously been reported.

The sizable sums paid by the Mike Thompson for Congress and Fitzpatrick for Congress campaigns — at least $20,000 each in the fourth quarter alone — show how quarterly reports filed with the Federal Election Commission can provide a window into which current and former lawmakers are facing ethics probes, investigations, lawsuits and other legal problems.

Legal fees can be paid from money remaining in campaign accounts as long as the work relates to a Member’s duties in office, exposing legal problems that might not otherwise be public.

After reporting no legal expenses for several quarters, the campaign to re-elect Thompson reported writing a check for $24,994 to the law firm Perkins Coie on Dec. 21. A New York Times article in July detailed Thompson’s efforts to have the Treasury Department create a designated wine region — called an appellation ­— in his district, where Thompson has a vineyard.

“Congressman Thompson secured legal services to respond to a request for information from OCE about his advocacy for grape growers in his district. Thompson complied fully, the information was thoroughly reviewed and the bipartisan board at OCE unanimously voted 6-0 in his favor and that there was no need for further review,” Thompson’s communications director, Austin Vevurka, said in a statement.

The Fitzpatrick for Congress account paid the law firm Patton Boggs $20,000 in the fourth quarter and $20,000 in the third quarter, according to FEC filings. The disbursements were related to a request made by the government watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington that the OCE look into a reception that Fitzpatrick held at the Capitol during his swearing-in ceremony.

“The legal fees are associated with what we thought was a frivolous claim. We pro-actively went to OCE to ensure that all of our actions were proper and OCE found that we did not have any improper actions related to the party,” 
Fitzpatrick spokesman Patrick Lyden said.

The re-election accounts of other lawmakers, including Reps. John Fleming (R-La.), Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) and Laura Richardson (D-Calif.), detail the cost of new and ongoing ethics cases, employment lawsuits and other legal and compliance issues, filings show.

The Fleming for Congress account spent $32,051 on attorneys during the fourth quarter of last year, after reporting no legal expenditures during the first three quarters of 2011. In late October, Fleming amended three years’ worth of financial disclosure forms, adding positions he held at a variety of organizations, including Fleming Subway Restaurants and a series of limited liability companies.

A similar omission of reportable positions landed Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) before the OCE and the House Ethics Committee. Buchanan amended his disclosure forms in September to add previously unreported positions. The committee announced last week that it will continue investigating the matter without forming an investigative subcommittee.

Fleming’s office declined to comment on the legal expenditures, discuss whether they are related to the amended financial disclosures or address whether he has been involved in any investigation. Both Buchanan and Fleming are being represented by Patton Boggs.

As Roll Call has previously reported, the campaign accounts of Meeks and Richardson continue to pay the costs associated with unresolved ethics inquiries.

During the last three months of 2011, the Meeks campaign paid $17,240 to four different law firms, including $7,000 to Perkins Coie, the firm known to be handling his ethics matters. The New York Democrat is the subject of an ongoing Ethics Committee probe related to a $40,000 loan he received but did not properly disclose.

Though the Richardson for Congress campaign reported paying minimal legal expenses in October, November and December, it reported legal debts that surpassed $125,000, according to its most recent filing. The House Ethics Committee voted in November to begin a formal investigation into whether the California Democrat compelled her Hill staffers to attend campaign events, run personal errands and work on her re-election effort in violation of Congressional ethics rules. Politico reported last week that the committee is also questioning whether she required staff to work on redistricting efforts.

Legal expenses also trail lawmakers and candidates once they are no longer in or running for office.

The campaign account of former Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) continues to show sizable legal outlays though he resigned in June following a sexting scandal. The campaign paid $13,290 in the fourth quarter to T&M Protection Resources, a firm that provides “seamlessly integrated security and investigative services, including state-of-the-art security technologies, to leading corporations, organizations and private clients.” The campaign also paid $1,373 to the law firm Baker  Hostetler.

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