Legal Bills Soar in Disputed House Race

Posted February 14, 2007 at 6:20pm

Going into his 1996 re-election, then-Rep. Bob Dornan (R-Calif.) had a hunch he was short on cash.

Despite $113,000 in the bank at the start of the cycle and conventional wisdom claiming that his challenger, Loretta Sanchez (D), had scant chance of upsetting him, Dornan recalled he “knew it was going to be the toughest race of my life.”

Dornan just didn’t know that the really tough part wouldn’t start until after Election Day.

After initial reports indicated that Dornan was up by a few hundred votes, absentee ballots turned the race in Sanchez’s favor. More than a year and one accusation of assault later, the House Oversight committee eventually agreed that Sanchez was the winner.

The investigation, however, came at a very steep cost, with the two candidates racking up roughly $900,000 in legal bills combined.

For the current iteration of the first Sanchez-Dornan matchup, the still-contested House race between now-Rep. Vern Buchanan (R-Fla.) and Democratic nominee Christine Jennings, $900,000 could be little more than a down payment.

Through the end of last year, the two already had handed over at least $450,000 for recount-related legal fees. And with House Democrats promising to look into any questions unanswered by the Florida courts — a process that may take months — Jennings and Buchanan continue to dial for dollars that are still being used to pay for last year’s disputed election.

“Every day people ask me about [whether I’ll run in] 2008 and my standard response is: ‘I’m still working on 2006,” Jennings said after attending a Senate hearing last week. “Tonight, I’ll get home at 1:30 a.m., so I can get in the office tomorrow morning to raise money.”

According to information culled from campaign sources and Federal Election Commission financial disclosure statements, Buchanan paid $365,804.11 for recount-related legal fees and $36,557.89 for recount-related legal support fees through the end of last year. On Jan. 1, the campaign had roughly $10,500 in cash, another $20,000 in a recount fund and was $1.6 million in debt.

Buchanan campaign spokeswoman Sally Tibbetts said the campaign has not set a target for recount fundraising. After all, she noted, it’s not Buchanan’s decision whether to throw in the towel in her effort to overturn the Florida election board’s ruling that Buchanan won the open-seat House race by 369 votes.

“That’s up to Christine Jennings,” Tibbetts said. “We are confident that we’ll raise whatever is necessary.”

Jennings has argued that a faulty electronic ballot skewed the result in Buchanan’s favor.

Election lawyers agree the still-unresolved Jennings-Buchanan election could get very expensive. Since the case could go first through Florida courts and then to the House Administration panel, Jennings and Buchanan may pay to resolve the issue twice.

“Contested elections take one of two routes — or both,” said Marc Elias, a Democratic election lawyer. “They either go through the state court system or through the House or Senate. In some cases they do both: State court proceedings are exhausted and then House proceedings begin after or in tandem.”

Although Jennings had $252,034 in cash and $314,467 in debt at year’s end, she had paid just $36,000 to one law firm in late December. As of Dec. 31, Jennings’ recount fund had nearly $225,000 in cash on hand.

In addition to a protracted and very expensive legal fight, Republican election lawyer Cleta Mitchell said a recent FEC decision may complicate Jennings’ and Buchanan’s fundraising efforts — fundraising limits Sanchez and Dornan did not have to contend with a decade ago. Unlike previous contested elections, the two will be subjected to $2,300 individual fundraising limits for their recount funds, the same limits that apply to federal candidates.

“Previously a recount fund could be established that was not subject to the source prohibitions and limits because it was not deemed to be in connection with a federal election,” Mitchell said. “The FEC created this out of whole cloth.”

Depending on how far the case goes, taxpayers may end up picking up most of the bill. In August 1998, the House agreed to reimburse Dornan and Sanchez roughly $570,000 combined for legal fees incurred during the investigation.

House Administration Committee officials did not respond to requests for comment by press time Wednesday regarding whether Congress would pick up the tab for the contested Florida election.