War Chests Used to Pay Legal Bills

Posted February 10, 2009 at 6:36pm

Even among those with established defense funds, lawmakers facing legal scrutiny continue to rely primarily on campaign cash to finance their defense strategies, according to a Roll Call analysis of legal spending.

Among the handful of House and Senate lawmakers who maintain legal defense funds, including Members who were defeated or retired in the previous election cycle, most still report spending significant amounts of their campaign funds on legal fees.

Those individuals include ex-Reps. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.) and John Doolittle (R-Calif.), both of whom faced federal investigations into their relationships with disgraced ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who is serving a prison sentence for his role in the influence-peddling scandal.

Both lawmakers established legal defense funds in June 2007.

According to quarterly records filed with the Committee on Standards of Official Conduct, Feeney’s fund raised about $58,000 through the end of 2008 and reported expenditures just short of that amount.

But campaign records filed with the Federal Election Commission and compiled by CQ MoneyLine show that Feeney’s re-election account significantly added to that expenditure, paying out nearly $147,000 for “legal services” during the same period. He spent an additional $23,000 on similar expenses in 2007, related to an ethics committee investigation of a 2003 golf trip to Scotland.

Similarly, Doolittle’s defense fund raised about $116,000 through the end of 2008, and about $93,000 was spent.

Doolittle’s campaign records show his re-election account spent an additional $78,000 on either “legal fees” or “legal services” during the same period.

Since he retained the law firm Williams Mullen in early 2006, Doolittle’s campaign reporting shows, he has spent more than $208,000 on those same legal expenses.

In his most recent filing with the ethics committee, Doolittle, who did not seek re-election to the 111th Congress, indicated that he intends to maintain his legal defense fund.

“At this point, I have not terminated the Trust, as matters related to its purpose are ongoing,” he wrote in a letter accompanying the report.

Unlike his former colleagues, ex-Rep. William Jefferson (D-La.) appears to fund his legal defense entirely from his fund, reporting almost no legal expenditures from his campaign coffers even before he established the fund in August 2005.

According to an analysis of quarterly reports filed with the House ethics panel, Jefferson’s legal defense fund raised more than $170,000 and spent about $155,000 through the end of 2008.

Included in Jefferson’s most recent payments are checks issued to the lawmaker himself, listed on forms as “reimb. re attorney,” in early 2008. Jefferson did not return a telephone call to the number listed for his New Orleans home late Tuesday afternoon.

Among sitting lawmakers, Rep. Don Young (R-Alaska) remains among the most prolific spenders on legal fees, recording more than $1.3 million in legal expenditures from his campaign account during the 2008 cycle.

The Alaskan, who faces legal scrutiny for his relationship to an oil services company and a transportation project in Florida, established a legal defense fund in January 2008 and recorded about $72,000 in donations through the end of the year. The fund spent about $67,000 of that total.

By comparison, during that same period, Young’s campaign accounts showed expenditures of nearly $405,000 on legal fees and services.

Former Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), convicted in October of filing false financial statements to conceal the receipt of more than $250,000 in gifts over a six-year period, also established a legal defense fund in 2008, but to date has not filed reports detailing contributions or expenditures, according to the Senate Office of Public Records.

Under House rules, lawmakers may set up defense funds with the approval of the ethics committee to pay for civil or criminal proceedings relating to their official duties.

Contributions to such funds are capped at $5,000 per year for an individual and do not count against contribution limits for campaigns, but lobbyists are prohibited from donating. House lawmakers may also transfer unlimited funds from their campaign accounts to approved legal defense funds.

Senate rules allow for similar funds, with additional prohibitions on donors, including labor unions, but permit donations of up to $10,000 annually.

Former Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), who pleaded guilty to corruption charges in September 2006 stemming from the Abramoff investigation and subsequently served an 18-month prison term, used both campaign funds and a legal defense fund.

“You need to continue to raise money for your campaign, [and] you obviously need to — unless you’re independently wealthy — you need to raise money for your legal defense,” Ney said of his decision to establish a legal defense fund in early 2006.

But even with his formal legal defense fund, which ultimately raised about $40,000, Ney tapped more than $508,000 in funds from his campaign to cover legal bills dating to August 2005.

“It comes to the point where you also have to touch base with your contributors — are they OK with it,” Ney said of using campaign funds to pay legal expenses.

“The balance is very tricky because you’re in an election cycle like we were, and you start to have that scale: On the one hand, you have to pay the legal fees because you’re battling stuff, and on the other hand, you have a campaign to run,” Ney recalled.

But the Ohio lawmaker, who announced he would not seek re-election in August 2006, said he also had a good relationship with his attorney Mark Tuohey.

“I was very happy with my attorney, I really was and I still am,” said Ney, who noted that he is not raising funds and has no outstanding legal bills.